‘Polio Paul’ dies after living in iron lung for more than 70 years

A polio survivor, who lived inside an iron lung for 70 years, has died at the age of 78.

Paul Alexander, widely known as “Polio Paul”, contracted the viral disease in the summer of 1952 when he was six years old and was left paralysed from the neck down.

He was rushed to hospital in Texas – and woke up inside the metal cylinder where he would spend the rest of his life.

Paul Alexander looks out from inside his iron lung.
Pic: The Dallas Morning News/AP
Mr Alexander lived inside his iron lung for 70 years. Pic: The Dallas Morning News/AP

An update on his GoFundMe page by its organiser Christopher Ulmer reads: “Paul Alexander, ‘The Man in the Iron Lung’, passed away yesterday.

“After surviving polio as a child, he lived over 70 years inside of an iron lung.

“In this time Paul went to college, became a lawyer, and a published author.

“His story travelled wide and far, positively influencing people around the world. Paul was an incredible role model that will continue to be remembered.”

Mr Ulmer said he met and interviewed Mr Alexander in 2022.

Nurse attend to a room full of polio patients in iron lung respirators. Rancho Los Amigos Respirator Center, Hondo, California in 1953
Polio patients in iron lung respirators in California in 1953. Pic: Alamy

Mr Alexander’s brother, Philip, said in a statement posted by Mr Ulmer on the web page that he was grateful “to everybody who donated to my brother’s fundraiser”.

“It allowed him to live his last few years stress-free,” he said.

“It will also pay for his funeral during this difficult time.

“It is absolutely incredible to read all the comments and know that so many people were inspired by Paul. I am just so grateful.”

Mr Ulmer added: “Paul, you will be missed but always remembered. Thanks for sharing your story with us.”

Paul Alexander chats with caregiver and friend Kathy Gaines as he drinks coffee.
Pic: The Dallas Morning News/AP
Mr Alexander with his carer and friend Kathy Gaines at his Dallas home in 2018. Pic: The Dallas Morning News/AP

Mr Alexander could leave his iron lung a few hours at a time after teaching himself to breathe, and would use a plastic stick and a pen attached to it to tap on a keyboard to communicate with people.

He would go on to write the story of his life in a book titled: Three Minutes For A Dog.

His condition reportedly deteriorated during recent years, developing a persistent respiratory infection and pain in his legs every time he moved.

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In an interview with The Guardian in April 2020, Mr Alexander spoke of his fears during the COVID pandemic.

“It’s exactly the way it was, it’s almost freaky to me,” he said of the parallels between the polio outbreak in the US in the 1950s and COVID-19.

“It scares me.”

Mr Alexander also recalled people’s reactions to seeing him, saying: “You can’t believe how many people walked into my law office and saw my iron lung and said, ‘What is that?’, and I’d tell them, ‘It’s an iron lung’.

“‘What does it do?’ ‘Breathe for me’.”

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