Paul Alexander, the ‘man in the iron lung’, dies aged 78

A man who attracted a large following and inspired millions with the story of his life in an iron lung has died at 78.

Confined to an iron lung after contracting polio as a child, Paul Alexander managed to train himself to breathe on his own for part of the day, earned a law degree, wrote a book about his life, built a big following on social media and inspired people around the globe with his positive outlook.

Alexander died Monday at the age of 78 at a Dallas hospital, said longtime friend Daniel Spinks. He explained that Alexander had recently been hospitalised after being diagnosed with COVID-19, but he did not know the cause of death.

Alexander contracted polio in 1952, when he was 6 years old. He became paralysed from the neck down and he began using an iron lung, a cylinder that encased his body while the air pressure in the chamber forced air into and out of his lungs. He had millions of views on his TikTok account.

“He loved to laugh,” Spinks said. “He was just one of the bright stars of this world.”

A book Alexander wrote about his life, “Three Minutes for a Dog: My Life in an Iron Lung,” was published in 2020. Gary Cox, who has been friends with Alexander since college, said that the title comes from a promise Alexander’s nurse made him when he was a young boy: that he’d get a dog if he could teach himself to breathe on his own for three minutes.

“That took a good maybe two years, three years before he was able to stay out for three minutes and then five minutes and then 10 minutes and then eventually he got the strength to learn to stay out all day,” said Cox. And, indeed, Alexander did get that puppy.

In this Friday, April 27, 2018 photo, attorney Paul Alexander looks out from inside his iron lung at his home in Dallas.

Alexander, who earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1978 from the University of Texas and a law degree from the school in 1984, was a driven man who had a strong faith in God, said Spinks. They became friends in 2000, when Cox took a job as his driver and helper.

He said he would drive Alexander to the courthouse, and then push him to his court proceedings in his wheelchair. At the time, he said, Alexander could spend about four to six hours outside of an iron lung, and would be in an iron lung when he was at his office or home.

Spinks only worked for Alexander for about a year, but they remained friends. Spinks said he was among the friends who helped maintain and repair Alexander’s iron lungs.

“There were a couple of close calls when his lung would break and I would rush out there and we would have to do some repairs on it,” Spinks said.

Cox said that at one point, he and his brother got an iron lung off eBay and drove to Chicago to pick it up, bringing it back to Dallas and refurbishing it.

“They quit making them,” Cox said. “They quit supplying the parts for them. You can’t even get a collar for them anymore.”

Polio was once one of the US’s most feared diseases, with annual outbreaks causing thousands of cases of paralysis. The disease primarily affects children.

Vaccines became available starting in 1955. According to the federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, a national vaccination campaign cut the annual number of US cases to fewer than 100 in the 1960s and fewer than 10 in the 1970s. In 1979, polio was officially declared to have been eradicated in the US.

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