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Surviving on iron ventilator for nearly 70 years, paralysed Paul Alexander became a successful lawyer and writes his autobiography

Paul Alexander who for nearly 70 years has been dependent on the iron ventilator for survival has set an example by fighting back (Pic. Courtesy smithsonianmag.com)

Any other ordinary mortal would not have had the courage to fight back much less survive and thrive for such a long time while being dependent on a contraption that helped in breathing. But Paul Alexander of Texas, United States, did exactly that and now 75 years old, is living thanks to a huge ventilator made of steel that has enabled him to breathe and live for almost seven decades, according to an article in smithsonianmag.com.

The year was 1952 and it was summer time when Alexander then just six complained of his head and neck hurting while running high temperature and it was a matter of days when he ceased to move, speak or swallow. He was struck with the dreaded disease polio.

Today he survives paralyzed completely from the neck down dependent on that ventilator and is one of the last people using it. This device was common in the past when the epidemic stuck with all its might.

In his recent video interview, the confident Alexander said: “I never gave up and I’m not going to.”

What makes his case truly noteworthy is that Alexander did not just survive with the help of the device. He used it to fulfil his dreams, including becoming a high school graduate with honours and also receiving Southern Methodist University’s scholarship, even though the school had rejected him earlier.

Whenever he could, he attended the classes in a wheelchair, even if such occasions were rare and brief.

In 1984, Alexander graduated with a Juris Doctor from the University of Texas at Austin Law School, reports PennLive.com, and he even worked as a lawyer. In his video interaction he stated: “And I was a damn good one too.”

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He went to attain more than this as in 2020, he wrote the experiences of life. He took five years to write “Three Minutes for a Dog: My Life in an Iron Lung”. What is remarkable is that he wrote every word himself by attaching a pen to a stick which he held in his mouth. “I wanted to accomplish the things I was told I couldn’t accomplish and to achieve the dreams I dreamed.”

In the last century, polio or poliomyelitis was a dreaded disease that killed thousands while affecting many more every year. As the polio virus of this infectious disease attacked the central nervous system – it rendered about 0.5 per cent of cases paralysed in one form or another. A notable example is that of the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who after contracting polio in 1921 lost the use of his legs.

For those polio afflicted whose diaphragm was paralysed, the iron lungs or ventilators were a must. This device by creating negative pressure through a vacuum forced the lungs to expand, and allowed such patients to breathe.

Sustained inoculation campaign by the health officials made the US in 1979 polio free. The vaccine for this epidemic had been invented by Jonas Salk in 1953.

At present Alexander is reported to be one of only two people using the iron ventilator. Data provided by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History states that in 1959, 1,200 people in the U.S. relied on tank respirators while in 2004 the figure came down to 39.

It was no easy task on part of Alexander to change and adjust life once he started using the iron lung. Besides feeling rejected by others, he had to equip himself, when outside the ventilator, with the skill of “frog” breathing – that is using muscle of his throat to push air into his lungs.

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It is here his will power came into play as he commented on the video: “I didn’t want to die, so I continued to fight.”

At this stage of his life, Alexander battles not just for himself but also to motivate others who are stumped by their life’s circumstances. “My story is an example of why your past or even your disability does not have to define your future. No matter where you’re from or what your past is, or the challenges you could be facing. You can truly do anything. You just have to set your mind to it, and work hard.”