Featured, Health

The Life Of Polio Paul – The Man Who Spent His Life In An Iron Lung

Nmesoma Okwudili


January 31, 2024

Polio Paul holds a unique distinction of having spent the most time in an iron lung. He was restricted to a 600-pound iron lung for over 70 years after contracting polio in 1952. Polio Paul has been dependent on this life-sustaining device following his diagnosis, and as a result, he has been acknowledged by Guinness World Records as the patient with the longest duration in an iron lung. His extraordinary journey exemplifies the tenacity of the human spirit in the face of difficulty.

Paul Alexander, renowned as ‘Polio Paul,’ has been a Dallas, Texas resident enduring the aftermath of the most severe polio outbreak in U.S. history, which unfolded in 1952 with a staggering 58,000 reported cases. Following his diagnosis during this tumultuous period, he underwent an emergency tracheotomy and was subsequently confined to an iron lung, a crucial life-support device designed to aid the body’s battle against the pernicious disease. As a consequence of the polio’s debilitating effects, Paul has struggled with paralysis, relying on the continuous support of the iron lung to facilitate his breathing, as his respiratory functions are unable to operate autonomously.

The iron lung itself is a fully enclosed, hermetically sealed chamber that surrounds the patient’s body except for the head. It works by applying negative pressure to draw in oxygen and force the lungs to expand, allowing the patient to breathe. Although effective, this equipment is large and cumbersome, thus the person must be securely fastened. Surprisingly, Paul has chosen to persist in living within the confines of his iron lung in spite of advances in contemporary technology. His steadfast dedication to this antiquated but essential machine emphasizes the unique challenges and decisions faced by those dealing with the long-term impacts of polio.

The poliovirus, which causes polio, is a debilitating disease spread through contaminated food and water, feces, and oral contact. Within a few hours, the virus can cause severe damage to the brain stem and spinal cord, which will cause rapid-onset paralysis. The muscles eventually weaken, making independent breathing unsustainable due to the disruption of communication between the central nervous system and the muscles caused by this paralysis.

This condition primarily impacts children under 5 years old, elucidating the reason for Paul contracting it during his early years. Nevertheless, any unvaccinated adult remains susceptible to contracting the disease. While there is no cure for polio, multiple administrations of the polio vaccine can provide crucial protection against the illness in children.

Interestingly, Paul has learned to breathe independently outside the lung, although for only a short period for time. He perfected this technique because of his therapist Mrs. Sullivan who made a deal with him that if he can breathe without his iron lung for 3 minutes, she will give him a puppy. It took Paul a year to learn, but he earned his puppy.  Though initially challenging, he improved at breathing without the iron lung, he got better at it.

In addition to breathing independently, he resided in his iron lung and proudly passed all of his academic milestones. He has three decades of legal practice experience and is currently regarded as an outstanding attorney. He wrote a book that chronicles his voyage and has been read by millions of people, building a reputation in popular culture. As a living example of the proverb “as long as there is life, there is hope,” Paul serves as a monument to the fortitude required to overcome hardship and emphasises the need of inner strength and tenacity in doing so.


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