‘Polio Paul’ Alexander dies at age 78


 Paul Alexander, who spent the vast majority of the past 70 years in an iron lung and defied expectations by becoming a lawyer and author, died Monday afternoon at the age of 78, according to his brother Philip Alexander.

Paul Alexander, here in his apartment in Dallas in 2019, was one of the last people in the United States to use an iron lung to breathe. 
Allison V. Smith/Guardian/eyevine/Redux

Paul Alexander, who defied odds by becoming a lawyer and author despite spending the majority of the last seven decades in an iron lung, passed away at 78, as confirmed by his brother Philip Alexander. 

His demise was announced on a GoFundMe page established to support his housing and healthcare expenses. Philip expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support, stating, "It's incredibly touching to see how many people were inspired by Paul." 

Although Paul's exact cause of death remains unclear, he had been hospitalized for a Covid-19 infection three weeks prior, although he had tested negative in the recent week, according to Philip. Christopher Ulmer, the organizer of the GoFundMe fundraiser, bid farewell to Paul, acknowledging his impact and thanking him for sharing his remarkable journey.

Paul contracted polio during the height of the 1952 epidemic, when the United States recorded over 21,000 paralytic cases, as reported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fast forward to today, and polio has been effectively eliminated in the United States, largely due to the development of vaccines in the late 1950s, according to the CDC.

The disease struck Paul at the tender age of six, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe without assistance. His reliance on an iron lung—a large metal cylinder designed to regulate air pressure and stimulate breathing—became a defining aspect of his life, as chronicled in his autobiography.

Despite grim prognoses from medical professionals, Paul's family refused to give up hope. His mother, Doris Alexander, recounted the challenges they faced, including instances when power failures necessitated manual pumping of the iron lung, with neighbors rallying to provide assistance.

Remarkably, Paul spent the next seven decades confined to the iron lung, setting a record recognized by Guinness World Records in March 2023 as the longest-surviving patient. Yet, his spirit remained unbroken, and his ambitions transcended his physical limitations.

Through sheer determination, Paul mastered breathing techniques that allowed him to venture outside the confines of the iron lung for brief periods. This newfound freedom propelled him to pursue education, culminating in a college degree and later, a law degree. Despite his physical constraints, Paul embarked on a remarkable thirty-year career as a courtroom attorney, defying societal expectations and proving his mettle in the face of adversity.

Not content to merely overcome his own challenges, Paul sought to inspire others through his autobiography, titled "Three Minutes for a Dog: My Life in an Iron Lung." The title refers to his monumental achievement of mastering independent breathing for at least three minutes—an accomplishment that took him a year to accomplish and was rewarded with the companionship of a loyal canine.

In recounting his extraordinary journey, Paul's autobiography serves as a beacon of hope and resilience, demonstrating the boundless potential of the human spirit to triumph over adversity. His legacy continues to inspire countless individuals facing their own battles, reminding us all of the power of perseverance and determination in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Despite his physical limitations, Paul was not deterred from pursuing his dreams, including the completion of a second book. He offered a glimpse into his writing process, using a pen attached to a plastic stick held in his mouth to tap keys on a keyboard—a testament to his unwavering determination and creativity.

In an interview, Paul expressed his refusal to succumb to perceived limitations, declaring, “I’ve got some big dreams. I’m not going to accept from anybody their limitations.” His unwavering positivity and resilience shone through as he reflected on his incredible life journey.

In January, Paul took to TikTok, setting up a “Polio Paul” account where he shared insights into his life and answered questions about living in an iron lung. From practical inquiries like “How do you go to the bathroom?” to inquiries about his positive mindset, Paul candidly shared his experiences, garnering a substantial following of 300,000 and amassing over 4.5 million likes by the time of his passing.

Not content with simply sharing his own story, Paul also used his platform to advocate for polio vaccination. In his inaugural TikTok video, he emphasized the importance of immunization, stressing the need to protect millions of children from the threat of polio resurgence, echoing his lifelong commitment to public health and disease prevention. Paul's legacy extends far beyond his own accomplishments, serving as an inspiration to countless individuals and a reminder of the power of determination, advocacy, and resilience in the face of adversity.

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