The Man Who Lives in an Iron Lung: Paul Richard Alexander

The Man Who Lives in an Iron Lung: Paul Richard Alexander

You might be wondering what an iron lung means. Why would a man be living there? What happened to his lungs? Can’t he breathe? How does an iron lung look like? In fact, there are many questions to keep pondering on. Don’t you worry, just grab a bowl of popcorn and read along as the answers unfold.

The story of the Man who Lives in an Iron Lung

Paul was just a little boy of six when he caught the virus. It was a deadly virus spreading fiercely in the city of Dallas and other places in the world. Schools, offices, markets and almost everywhere was shut down due to the virus outbreak. People were instructed to wear a nose mask to prevent themselves from contracting the Poliovirus. The outbreak was so similar to the present Coronavirus pandemic of today.

One day, Paul ran inside to call his mum. He had been playing outside all day and was feeling sick and weak. “Oh my God! Not my son!” Paul’s mum had screamed as she saw him. Her son had caught the virus. She stared at her son with hot tears dripping down her chubby cheeks. A few days later, Paul’s condition grew unpleasant. He couldn’t move. He got paralyzed from his neck downward. The only thing he could move was his head.

Paul Richard Alexander Contracted Polio at the Age of Six

Soon, Paul’s parents noticed that he had stopped breathing. He couldn’t breathe anymore. Was he dead? Immediately, they rushed him to the hospital. When they got there, the emergency room physician examined him and shook his head sadly. “Mr and Mrs Alexander, Your son is dead.” The doctor had said leaving the room. Paul’s parents instantly broke down into tears on hearing the news.

A few minutes later, another doctor dashed into the room, picked him up and ran upstairs with him. What was he about to do to the dead boy? The doctor quickly performed a tracheotomy on him and placed him in an Iron lung. A tracheotomy is an incision made in the trachea (windpipe) which forms a temporary or a permanent opening that relieves any obstruction in breathing. Even after performing a tracheotomy and placing him in an iron lung, he still didn’t wake up.

Why did Polio Patients need an Iron Lung?

Three days later, Paul came alive. He couldn’t move neither could he speak. His body was encased in an iron lung. The iron lung is a large horizontal cylinder In which a person is laid with their head protruding from a hole at the end of the cylinder. The head is exposed to ambient air and the rest of the body is sealed in the iron lung. The iron lung uses a mechanism of negative pressure to take air into his lungs and this helps him to breathe.

Paul stayed in the hospital for several months. He wasn’t the only one there. There were many other children placed in iron lungs. They were victims of the Poliovirus outbreak. While in the hospital, Paul couldn’t speak because of the tracheotomy performed on him. He communicated with other kids by making faces at them. However, he tried making new friends there but whenever he made any, they would die. During his stay, Paul would hear the cries of children. They were all in pain. Sometimes, Paul would be soaked in urine and feces as he couldn’t speak to the nurse whenever his bladder was full. It was really hell for him in the hospital.

What happens to your body in an iron lung?

“He is going to die today or possibly tomorrow” doctors would say whenever they come across him during their ward rounds. Paul heard that and that made him so furious. It made him want to live and even fulfil his dreams. He promised himself he was going to fight till the end. Eighteen months later, he left the hospital and came to his residence in Dallas but his life never remained the same. He was still in the iron lung. He couldn’t play sports, he couldn’t go to church, he was always indoors. In fact, he lost all his friends as people felt uncomfortable around him. Fortunately for him, he was able to speak again.

Paul never wanted to die. He did everything reasonable to get better. When he wakes up, someone would help him brush his teeth, wash his face and feed him some breakfast. During the day, he might read a book, draw or paint some drawings by placing the crayon in his mouth. Paul wanted to study. He yearned to be a lawyer. But, was it possible? What became the fate of Paul?

Background and Education

When Paul was 13, his parents enrolled him in a school program that supported children learning from home. He was learning from the comfort of his home. He knew that if he wanted to become anything useful in life, it was something that has to do with him using his mental ability. In addition, He couldn’t play basketball or do anything involving his physical strength. It just had to be mental work. When he was 21, he graduated from high school with straight A’s. He just had a B in Biology and that was because he couldn’t dissect a rat which was part of their assessment.

After his high school, he applied to a University in Dallas. But, despite his excellent result, he was rejected because of his disability. They said he was too crippled to go to school. This severely shattered the heart of Paul. Paul never gave up. He would call the school trying to convince them why they should admit him into the University but his pleas fell on a stony ground. He kept on calling them frequently trying to persuade them. Paul’s high school teachers also fought for him. They spoke to the University about Paul several times.

Paul Did Something That Shook The World

After two years after fighting, he was admitted into the school based on two conditions. He had to get someone to help him whenever going to classes and he had to get the Poliovirus vaccine. It wasn’t so easy for Paul. He was the only crippled in his department and he barely had friends. Along the line, he was transferred to another University and in 1978, he graduated with an excellent result. But, that wasn’t all. He went on to acquire a postgraduate law degree. Despite being disabled, Paul took his bar examination and passed beautifully well.

However, Paul also did something that shook the world. With the help of a pen attached to a stick, Paul wrote a book entirely with his mouth. The book was a biography about himself. He did that to inspire people never to give up irrespective of the challenges facing them. He wanted to show the world that he could accomplish the things they said he couldn’t. Also, He never allowed Polio to defeat him but rather, he defeated it.

Is the man in the iron lung still alive?

Paul Alexander’s story is really an inspiring one. No matter the challenges you are facing, you can truly do anything if only set your mind towards it and work hard. Never give up on your dreams! Your past, disability or challenges should never prevent you from attaining success or fulfilling your dreams. If Paul can make it, then YOU CAN MAKE IT. Paul is still very much alive today though he still lives in the iron lung.



Writer: Isibor Precious
Delta State University, Abraka, NIGERIA

Isibor Precious is a young writer who uses writing as a means of communicating to the world. Spurred by certain issues of life, a great message lies in every of her stories. Her stories are captivating, educational and eye-opening. Though a student of pharmacology, her choice of words are explicit and emotive. 

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. Gbemisola

    This is really inspiring.
    What’s with the kids dying anytime he tried making friends with them?

    1. precy30

      It’s the Poliovirus. It was so deadly then.

    2. precy30

      Polio vaccine hadn’t been created then. So, a lot of kids died from it. He was just lucky.

    3. Fatimah idowu

      it was because they also had the virus,it was possible for any of them to die anytime soon. So many of the friends he made didn’t survive, but he was lucky to stay alive

  2. Bethylizzy

    How was he able to go to school inside the iron lung

    1. precy30

      He had an helper during his University days. But, he took his high school courses strictly from home

    2. precy30

      His parents employed a helper for him -a nurse assistant.

      One more thing to add….
      Paul could come out of the iron lungs only for a few minutes.
      When he was admitted into the hospital at first, he was taught a breathing technique called glossopharyngeal breathing. In this case, you trap air in your mouth and throat cavity by flattening the tongue and opening the throat, as if you’re saying “ahh”. Paul called it ‘frog breathing’. He could only do this for a few minutes outside the iron lung.
      However, one physical therapist called Mrs Sullivan was posted to his hospital and she took great interest in Paul. She encouraged him to learn the breathing technique and promised that if he could breathe outside the iron lungs for about 3 minutes, she would get him a puppy. Well, it took some years for him to eventually do that and she got him the puppy at last.

      So….Back to your question…
      When Paul was in school, he could come out of the iron lungs for only a few minutes using that frog breathing technique and his helper was there to assist him.

  3. son__of__zion

    Insightful tho🙌🙌🙌💗
    What’s with those kids dying really?

    1. precy30

      It was as a result of the Polio virus. It was so deadly then.

  4. Stellicose

    Thank you for this. From Paul’s case, I have learnt that no condition is an excuse for failure

  5. Kingrolly

    Such a motivational story.
    Kudos to the writer

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