72 years in an iron lung: The man who taught himself to breathe

At the age of six, Paul Alexander contracted polio and was paralyzed ever since and dependent on an ancient-looking ventilator: the iron lung.

72 years in an iron lung: The man who taught himself to breathe

At the age of six, Paul Alexander contracted polio and was paralyzed ever since and dependent on an ancient-looking ventilator: the iron lung. This week he died at the age of 78 as a result of a corona infection. He was one of the last people in the world still living in an iron lung. He had survived one deadly epidemic and did not expect to be threatened by another. The Guardian spoke to Alexander in 2020, at the start of the pandemic, about his life in the machine. He already knew back then that this Covid would probably also threaten his own life because his condition made him particularly vulnerable to such a virus. It was “very likely” that he would die from it, Alexander said at the time. He should be right.

We have translated the text from 2020 to bring you, dear readers, closer to the impressive life story of this man who taught himself to breathe.

The summer of 1952 was hot even by Texas standards: 25 days over 38 degrees Celsius, the "cool" days weren't much cooler. But pools were closed across the state. Likewise cinemas, bars and bowling alleys. There were no church services. The insecticide DDT was sprayed extensively in cities. Health authorities now knew that the disease wasn't spread by mosquitoes, but they had to at least appear to be doing something about the outbreak. Nothing seemed to work. Over the summer, the number of polio cases increased.

One day in July, in a quiet suburb of Dallas, a six-year-old boy named Paul Alexander was playing outside in the summer rain. He didn't feel well - his neck hurt, his head throbbed.

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