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.

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)

  • Barton

    I have pictures of my dad’s older cousin in the iron lung when she was about 6. She was lucky and didn’t have to stay in it the rest of her life. But she was left permanently disabled by polio. She spent over two years of her childhood in a polio ward (that is what she called it, I now think it must have been more like an institutional home/prison, and not really a hospital wing which I originally assumed).

    I do think of her every time I hear about someone not getting vaccinated: no one should have to go through that hell.

    • jon

      I have photos of my grandfather in one…
      He died when my mother was in highschool…

      There is a house, the one my mother grew up in, with a large exterior door, it was added so they could get my grandfather into the house with the iron lung… The house is still there, the door is still there, the current owners probably wonder who would have put a door like that in that location…

      I get bummed every time I check the status of polio eradication, it should have been done years ago, but wars and politics have kept the disease alive… Though last I looked at seemed we were finally getting close, so long as polio doesn’t show up in Syria…

      • Jack Ungerleider

        For those who have never seen one in person, the Ax-man store on University and Fry in St Paul has/had one that is part of the “decor”. It’s an item that is not for sale. If its still there they can get an idea of the size of one and understand the need for an extra large door.

      • Guest

        YES, conflict zones are pools of untreated disease that can easily re-spread across the world as folks flee conflict.

  • Guest

    I recall a story about the company that services Iron Lungs was going out of business. There are still folks who lived depending on them. No way to replace a gasket anymore.

  • Guest

    Granted that the need has dropped way down. But in the case of person unable to function his own lungs, what happens now with zero iron lungs available?

    • jon

      My understanding is that modern respirators, tracheotomies, incubation tubes, and oxygen tanks have largely done away with the need for iron lungs. People who have had them might prefer them, but they aren’t they only way to draw air into the lungs of some one not breathing.

      • Guest

        So they will even inflate lungs that are not working?

        • jon

          That’s the wrong question, inflating lungs that aren’t working won’t help anything. The iron lung and modern respirators inflate working lungs where the muscles (or brain signals to the muscles) aren’t pulling air into the lungs. If the lungs don’t work inflating them doesn’t help (oxygen can help there I gather, and I’ve heard barrometric Chambers with a high percentage of oxygen can do interesting things there too… ).

          But yes using a while body device that puts you under a vacuum to pull air into your lungs vs pushing air into your lungs with a mask both ends up with a pressure differential that moves air through the lungs… Is the basic idea behind CPR breaths, just done by a machine.