Man with iron lung has been living in machine for more than 70 years after playing out as child
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A man has been living with an iron lung for the last 70 years because of an illness that he realised he had after playing out as a child.
It sounds like something familiar from the past few years, but in 1952 there was an outbreak of an illness in Texas that left public spaces shut down, pubs and bars closed, and social distancing orders in place.
These were the measures that had to be implemented in order to arrest the spread of a virus that didn’t have a cure or a vaccine, and threatened to overwhelm the healthcare system of the United States.
As the patients - many of whom were children - stacked up in corridors and hospital rooms, the virus spread to more people, causing a serious threat to the whole population, as well as to the country’s healthcare infrastructure.
Paul Alexander was just six-years-old when he went outside with his brother to play, and only realised when he came back in that he had a fever, and had been feeling aches and pains in his muscles, as well as unexplained fatigue.
That was just the start of his illness that kept him living inside a machine for the next 70 years.
Paul was left paralysed from the neck down and unable to breath for himself, meaning that he needed an emergency tracheotomy to save his life.
"I had become immobile; I don't think I could even talk, so the hospital staff put me on a gurney in a long hallway with all the other hopeless polio kids. Most of them were dead,” he explained.
But, he didn’t die, he survived and eventually awoke on the iron lung ward.
The machines - which are now considered obsolete - work by encasing the patient in an air-tight gasket while a pump changes the air pressure inside and forces the chest to move.
Paul couldn’t move within the machine, and needed to learn to breathe on his own, developing a technique he calls ‘frog breathing’ that is better known as ‘glossopharyngeal breathing’ and involves using the throat muscles to swallow oxygen one mouthful at a time.
After a nurse promised him a dog if he could breath unaided for three minutes, Paul mastered it.
However, he still had to sleep in the iron lung, as frog breathing requires concentration.
Despite his predicament, Paul managed to pass high school with good grades, get two law degrees, write a book about his life, and spend years practising law and running his legal practice from a specially modified wheelchair.
He thanks his parents for keeping him going when there wasn’t much hope, adding: “They just loved me.
“They said, ‘You can do anything.’ And I believed it.”
Now, as he’s into his late 70s, he’s back in the iron lung full-time, but keeps himself busy by raising awareness of polio, as well as more recently publicising the dangers of Covid-19 to patients like himself.
Paul - much like the machine that sustains him - is a testament to staying power against the odds, and his willpower and tenacity is a testament to his inner strength, despite his physical issues.