Home » Paul Alexander and the Iron Lung: The Man Who Taught Himself to Breathe

Paul Alexander and the Iron Lung: The Man Who Taught Himself to Breathe

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Paul Alexander and the Iron Lung: The Man Who Taught Himself to Breathe

17.03.2024, 12:30

21 Min.

Polio patient Paul Alexander spent 72 years of his life in an iron lung before he died of a corona infection this week. The doctors had actually given up on him as a child, but he fought his way back to life – and at least partially out of the machine.

By Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, translated by Anuschka Tomat

At the age of six she fell ill Paul Alexander from polio and has been paralyzed ever since and dependent on an ancient-looking ventilator: the iron lung. This week he died at the age of 78 as a result of a corona infection. He was one of the last people in the world still living in an iron lung. He had survived one deadly epidemic and did not expect to be threatened by another. The Guardian spoke to Alexander in 2020, at the start of the pandemic, about his life in the machine. He already knew back then that Covid would probably also threaten his own life because his condition made him particularly vulnerable to such a virus. It was “very likely” that he would die from it, Alexander said at the time. He should be right.

We have translated the text about his life in the iron lung to bring you, dear readers, closer to the impressive life story of this man who taught himself to breathe.

The summer of 1952 was hot even by Texas standards: 25 days over 38 degrees Celsius, the “cool” days weren’t much cooler. But pools were closed across the state. Likewise cinemas, bars and bowling alleys. There were no church services. The insecticide DDT was sprayed extensively in cities. Health authorities now knew that the disease wasn’t spread by mosquitoes, but they had to at least appear to be doing something about the outbreak. Nothing seemed to work. Over the summer, the number of polio cases increased.

One day in July, in a quiet suburb of Dallas, a six-year-old boy named Paul Alexander was playing outside in the summer rain. He didn’t feel well – his neck hurt, his head throbbed.

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