Before going any further, let us understand what an “iron lung” is: it’s not so much a lung as a rigid case fitted over a patient’s body to assist him in breathing by pumping air into his lungs with the aid of mechanical pumps. The iron lung is perhaps most commonly associated with polio, often going hand-in-hand with it, as most polio patients spent a large chunk of their life confined within the iron lung.
Another fact about the iron lung: it is only rarely used today, so much so, that they have stopped making parts for iron lungs. In fact, only 10 people use the iron lung today; seven of them are in the United States. One of them is Paul Alexander.
Alexander, who hails from Texas, is now almost 68. He was left completely paralysed by polio at the age of six, owing to which his lungs stopped working; he has been largely dependent on and confined to his iron lung ever since. It has now been 62 years that Alexander has spent in the iron lung: he still remains completely paralysed, and is only able to move his head, neck, and mouth.
However, that is not the remarkable bit: Alexander taught himself voluntary breathing, which allowed him to escape the iron lung for a few hours at a time. Besides this, Alexander has three college degrees to his name, which allowed him to forge a successful career as a lawyer and set up a successful private law practice. The few hours that he can spend out of confinement are used whenever he may be litigating a case or giving a speech.
While Alexander condemns the machine he is confined to, he also gratefully admits that had it not been for the machine, he wouldn’t be alive today: ‘It is my cage, but it’s also my cocoon,’ says he.