The man in the iron lung

I cannot speak for all Baby Boomers, of course, but for many of us, there was no more horrifying boogeyman in our youth than the iron lung.

Johnny Whetzel, 6, of Bergton, Va., says goodbye from his iron lung to two University of Virginia Hospital nurses, Beverly Archer, center, and Peggy Moore, right, who cared for him during five months of treatment for polio in Charlottesville, Va., Feb. 17, 1961. (AP Photo)

We were the polio generation, faced with the prospect of living our lives in a machine. That was enough to get us to stand in line to drink the vaccine that would save us from the monster. It was frightening.

Iron lungs haven’t been made for 50 years. But there are still a few people alive who live in them, we learn today in a fascinating article in the Dallas Morning News about Paul Alexander, 72, who has lived much of his life in a can.

During his career as a bankruptcy lawyer, his clients would visit him at his home and eventually ask “what is that thing you’re in?”

“It’s an iron lung,” he’d reply. “I had polio.”

“What’s polio?” some would ask.

Inside his canary-yellow machine in his Love Field-area home, Alexander’s rigid body lays under a white sheet, fingernails long as talons and resting on his chest. He depends on a caregiver to help him eat, wash his face in the morning, brush his teeth and shave. He can be bathed, or his sheets adjusted, through portholes on the machine’s sides.

On the table, his head is ringed by technology linking him to the outside world — a computer, a push-button telephone, an Amazon Echo. What’s the Echo for? He grins. “Rock ‘n’ roll,” he says.

Closer to Alexander’s face, a straw pokes from a tall water cup; on his chin rests one end of a long, plastic T-square-like implement that he operates with his mouth, pecking out emails or answering and hanging up the phone.

His caretaker has worked for him for 30 years.

Insurance stopped covering repairs to his iron lung years ago, the Morning News says.

A power failure is a death sentence. A Tennessee woman died in 2008 when the electricity went out at her home.

He wants to self publish a book with a message in mind: don’t let polio return.

He’s horrified that there are parents who won’t get their kids vaccinated.

If they ever see an iron lung, that might well be enough to change their mind.

Archive: After five decades, iron lung still provides life and breath for polio patient (Pioneer Press)