​Meet The Polio Survivors Locked Inside Iron Lungs For Decades

| Last updated 

​Meet The Polio Survivors Locked Inside Iron Lungs For Decades

Nowadays, polio doesn't seem like a big deal at all. You have a few jabs when you're a kid and that's it - no need to even think about it for the rest of your life. However, not everyone is so lucky...

In previous generations, those affected by the disease were forced to use unwieldy machines called iron lungs to keep them breathing.

Although iron lungs are now almost obsolete, a handful of polio survivors who still use the machines have shared their experience of spending decades locked inside them.


In 2015, Nick Isenberg posted the above video to YouTube, explaining the problems his friend, 70-year-old Texan Paul Alexander, faces to maintain his iron lung, since companies have stopped making the parts for his machine.

"There are only two or three of us left," said Paul, who has spent the past 60 years using an iron lung. "I've tried all the ventilators available and this one is the best. It feels like a more natural way of breathing."

Credit: PA


Iron lung machines are pressured cylinders which help people breathe by creating an inner vacuum, drawing oxygen into their lungs, and they were once commonplace.

While most people only needed to use the machines for a week or two while they recovered, polio sufferers with permanent lung damage began to rely on them as an essential part of their everyday life.

In a piece shared earlier this week, the website Gizmodo spoke to three people who are still reliant on the outdated machines.

Paul contracted polio in 1952 when he was six and spends almost every moment in his iron lung, answering the phone and typing using a plastic wand he holds with his mouth.


Incredibly, despite his dependence on the machine, he went to law school and worked as a lawyer, living in the dorm with his iron lung.

Credit: PA

"I had a thousand friends before it was over with, who all wanted to find out what's that guy downstairs with a head sticking out of a machine doing here," Paul told Gizmodo.


Thanks to the anti-polio vaccine, polio has been widely wiped out in Western society, with the disease now only regularly found in three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. Even then, only 37 cases in total were reported last year in these three countries.

While the disease was wiped out in the US in 1979, back in the 1950s outbreaks of polio caused over 15,000 cases of paralysis each year, forcing those paralysed to use an iron lung to breathe.

Post-Polio Health International, an organisation which works to help polio sufferers, estimated in 2013 there are now only six to eight iron lung users left in the US - a tiny community.

As polio became less common, fewer and fewer people began to use iron lungs, to the point that in 2004, one company that produced them, Philips Respironics, said it could no longer guarantee it could repair the machines.


While Paul found someone who was kind and skilled enough to help, being reliant on an old machine which few people now know how to fix is a terrifying prospect.

It makes you glad that polio has been eradicated as much as it has, and hopefully scientists can soon wipe it out for good.

Featured Image Credit: Nick Isenberg/YouTube

Topics: Science, World News, Interesting, Technology, Disease, Medicine

Chris Ogden
More like this

Chosen for YouChosen for You


Jimmy Carr Shuts Down Anti-Vaxxer Who Was At His Gig With Just One Line

8 hours ago

Most Read StoriesMost Read


UK City Refused To Change 'Racist' Street Names

2 hours ago