Man Has Spent 72 Years in an Iron Lung – Teaches Us How to Live a Full Life

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For most of us, the idea of spending even ONE day confined to an iron lung seems unimaginable. Yet Paul Alexander spent a literal lifetime — seventy-two years — before his recent death on March 11.

But instead of letting it imprison him, he used it as an opportunity to thrive. And his inspiring life is a masterclass in the power of never giving up.

The Worst Polio Outbreak in U.S. History

It was the summer of 1952 and the height of the polio pandemic. Public swimming pools and playgrounds were closed. So were bowling alleys, bars, churches, and movie theatres.

Cities doused their streets with DDT insecticide; all in a desperate attempt to stop the disease from spreading.

Nothing worked.

By the end of the year, nearly 59,000 children were infected with the virus and thousands were left paralyzed, including six-year-old Paul Alexander.

“I remember it was really hot and raining, something that is sort of rare for Dallas in August,” Paul recalled, “and my brother and I had been outside playing, running around and getting wet when the rain started.”

“Our mother called for us to come in for dinner, and I remember her taking one look at me — hot and wet and feverish — and she cried out, ‘Oh my God!’ She ripped my clothes off and threw me onto her and my dad’s bed and called the doctor.”

Six days after first being diagnosed, Paul ended up in the hospital, struggling to breathe.

It would be 18 months before he went home, paralyzed from the neck down and sentenced to life in an iron lung.

Not Allowing Circumstances to Control His Life

Despite the extreme limitations imposed by his condition, Paul refused to succumb to despair. With his parents as his biggest cheerleaders and advocates, Paul dove headfirst into embracing life.

“They just loved me,” he said of his parents. “They said, ‘You can do anything.’ And I believed it.”

Paul Alexander

His parents stayed with him in shifts and his mom lobbied the school district to be able to home-school her son — something that until that point had been largely unheard of. They also hired a physical therapist, Mrs. Sullivan, who taught Paul to “frog-breathe,” a technique that allowed him to breathe on his own for short periods.

It opened up a whole new world for Paul and freed him from his shackles, allowing him to exchange his iron lung for a wheelchair for a few hours at a time.

At the age of 21, Paul graduated with honors from high school. But he still wasn’t done. He applied to the Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Despite being repeatedly rejected by the university administration for being “too crippled,” Paul refused to give up. After fighting for two years, he finally wore them down.

He got his Bachelor’s degree in economics (while living in the dorms) and then went on to earn a law degree from the University of Texas, passing the bar in 1986. For more than three decades he worked as a lawyer, eventually opening up his own practice, concentrating on criminal and family law and bankruptcy cases.

Living Life to the Fullest

In 2020, Paul published his memoir, Three Minutes for a Dog: My Life in an Iron Lung. It took him five years to complete and he wrote every single word himself, using a pen attached to a stick held in his mouth.

In 2022, Paul broke the world record for spending the longest amount of time living in an iron lung. 

And at the beginning of this year, Paul made his debut on social media, creating a series of videos entitled, “Conversations with Paul,” in which he responded to comments and questions about his life, his polio, and living in an iron lung.

In one TikTok viewed over 4.3 million times, Paul shared his secret to staying positive amid life’s ups and downs.

“There’s great purpose in being positive. I’ve seen so many people suffer in my life and I learned not to let that bring me down but to try to contribute something good for that person.”

In addition to graduating from university, practicing law, becoming a sought-after speaker, writing a memoir, and inspiring millions on social media, Paul also managed to find time for other not-so-little things.

“Over the course of his life, he has been on planes and to strip clubs, seen the ocean, prayed in church, fallen in love, lived alone, and staged a sit-in for disability rights,” wrote the Guardian in 2020.

“I wanted to accomplish the things I was told I couldn’t accomplish and to achieve the dreams I dreamed.”

Paul Alexander

On Setting Your Mind to Accomplish Your Goals

With sheer grit and determination and an incredible attitude of positivity despite devastating circumstances, Paul accomplished more in his life imprisoned than most of us will free.

And he is beyond inspiring. Because if a man confined to an iron tube for the majority of his life can achieve great things, that means we can too.

In a 2021 interview, Paul summed it up best:

“My story is an example of why your past or even your disability does not have to define your future.”

“No matter where you’re from or what your past is, or the challenges you could be facing, you can truly do anything. You just have to set your mind to it and work hard.”

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