One of the last people to live inside an “iron lung” has recently joined TikTok and uses the platform to share fascinating insights into his very unique story.
Paul Alexander contracted polio at the age of six in 1952 when an outbreak swept through his hometown of Dallas, Texas. Polio is an infectious disease caused by a virus that can spread from person to person. In some cases, the pathogen can attack the central nervous system and destroy motor neurons, leading to paralysis.
The paralysis is typically temporary, but around one in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis. Alexander was one of those unfortunate few and was left unable to move his body from the neck down.
While the lungs of paralyzed polio survivors still work fine, they can struggle to breathe due to paralysis of their chest muscles and diaphragm. To overcome this problem, Alexander was placed in an “iron lung”, a machine that works by applying negative pressure on the patient inside. The mechanical respirator helps the patient inhale by pumping out of the machine, thereby allowing their chest to expand. As air is pumped back into the machine, this makes the patient exhale.
Alexander has remained inside the iron lung for over 70 years. He can temporarily leave the machine’s confines for two or three minutes thanks to a self-learned technique he calls "frog breathing", which involves gulping down mouthfuls of air using his throat muscles to force air into his lungs. However, this is not a long-term solution and he spends the overwhelming majority of his day inside the mechanical chamber.
It’s thought he’s just one of two people in the US who are reliant on an iron lung. In decades past, hundreds upon hundreds of people used these machines. It’s estimated that around 1,000 iron lungs were in use in the US in 1939.
However, scientists have since developed less-invasive ventilation systems, plus vaccines have done an incredible job at reducing polio rates globally (despite some recent resurgence).
The iron lung hasn’t stopped Alexander from achieving some amazing things. He studied law at the University of Texas and, in 1984, he passed the bar to become a lawyer. He also spent five years writing an autobiography – Three Minutes for a Dog: My Life in an Iron Lung – by typing into a computer using a pencil placed in his mouth.
In his latest venture, Alexander has joined TikTok with the user name @ironlungman. Here, he shares his stories and even answers questions from his fans, such as how he functions during a power cut.