Nowadays, polio doesn’t seem like a big deal at all. You have a few shots when you’re a kid and that’s it – no need to even think about it for the rest of your life. However, not everyone is so lucky. Imagine spending the majority of your day locked inside a giant iron machine. You can’t? Well, one unlucky man had no choice. His name is Paul Alexander. He mainly spent the last 64 years of his life confined within these iron lungs. Whilst the disease has almost been completely eradicated thanks to the development of a vaccine in 1955, there were a number of deadly outbreaks in the 1940’s and 50’s. Although iron lung are now almost obsolete, a handful of polio survivors who still use the machines have shared their experience of spending decades locked inside them.
While cases of the crippling disease still occur in countries such as Laos, Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it remains endemic in just three – Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
The iron lung works by having patients lie inside it; the device is then tightly enclosed around their neck, creating an artificial vacuum which mechanically fills their lungs up with oxygen. The machine is not intended for long-term use.
Children were particularly susceptible to the disease and the vast majority of people who required respiratory treatment using an iron lung were children. Aged six, the now 70-year-old contracted polio – an infectious viral disease that can cause muscle weakness and paralysis. Every day from 1952, he has been forced to climb into the machine and spend hours on his back.
The machine helps him breathe by fastening tightly around his neck and creating a vacuum to draw in oxygen.
While most people only needed to use the machines for a week or two while they recovered, polio sufferers with permanent lung damage began to rely on them as an essential part of their everyday life.
The 70-year-old from Dallas, Texas, has been using an iron lung since 1952. When the disease left him with permanent respiratory damage, Paul had no other choice to continue his life other than climbing into the machine. However, in 2015, Paul faced a severe crisis when the only thing that kept him living, started breaking down.
Paul couldn’t afford a new one since the device was no longer covered by insurers, and manufacturers stopped production in the 1960’s.
“There are only two or three of us left,” said 70-year-old Paul Alexander. Speaking from Texas, he added: “I’ve tried all the ventilators available and this one is the best. It feels like a more natural way of breathing.”
However, Paul wasn’t ready to give up and neither was his friend Nick Isenberg. Isenberg made an appeal to the whole world to help his friend through a YouTube video.
‘Paul Alexander has been in an iron lung since he was six. They have stopped making parts for iron lungs quite a while ago. Even though people who die give him their iron lungs he can’t fix any of them because the same part has worn out in all of them. Anyone who lives near Dallas, Texas, with machine shop skills and tools could probably fix it. It may just need a seal.’