The Man in the Iron Lung

Interesting read. Anti-vax people should read it. I remember this, and knew a girl who lived in an iron lung in her parent’s living room.

This man is a year older than I am. It is impossible to exaggerate the fear of polio and its horror that existed prior to the Salk vaccine. I got my vaccination when I was 7 years old during the first vaccine trial. Paul Alexander fears that because most people today don’t remember what polio and other terrible diseases were like, vaccination rates will fall and the diseases will make a comeback.

This is a long article that I encourage you to read. This man’s life has been amazing. He has accomplished much – including getting his law degree – by sheer grit and determination. Paul Alexander is someone to learn from. I don’t think I could have done a tenth of what he has done if I had been in the same situation. Heck, I haven’t had any of the hurdles that he had to overcome, and I STILL didn’t do what he has!

The Guardian

When he was six, Paul Alexander contracted polio and was paralysed for life. Today he is 74, and one of the last people in the world still using an iron lung.

In the US, from 1916 onwards, each summer brought an epidemic of polio in some part of the nation. At its peak in the 40s and 50s, the virus was responsible for more than 15,000 cases of paralysis in the US each year. During this same period, it killed or paralysed at least 600,000 people annually worldwide. The year Paul contracted the virus, 1952, saw the largest single outbreak of polio in US history: almost 58,000 cases across the nation. Of those, more than 21,000 people – mostly children – were left with varying degrees of disability, and 3,145 died.

Paul has always thought that polio, the “demon” that tried to destroy him, was going to come back. “I can see hospitals inundated by polio victims again, an epidemic, I can see it so easily. I tell the doctors, it’s going to happen. They don’t believe me,” he told me when he was in hospital last year.

It is only thanks to concerted vaccination efforts that there hasn’t been a new case of polio in the US since 1979, or in the UK since 1984. By 2000, the World Health Organization had declared all of the Americas and the western Pacific region polio-free. India, which had seen 200,000 cases of polio a year through the 1990s, was declared polio-free in 2014 after a series of aggressive vaccination campaigns. The virus is now only endemic to three countries in the world – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan – and cases of polio number in the dozens.

But Paul was right that most people have largely forgotten about the terror of polio, just as we have forgotten the terror of other diseases we now routinely vaccinate against – diphtheria, typhus, measles and mumps. And that could be fertile ground for their return if we do not remain vigilant. It’s hard to imagine, in the middle of this pandemic, that we’ll forget Covid-19, too. But we might. It’s hard to remember our nightmares the day after. The lesson of polio – and of every time we are confronted by our own terrible fragility and survive – is that sometimes we need to remember.

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7 Responses to The Man in the Iron Lung

  1. Menagerie says:

    Thanks for posting this Stella. It is a powerful read. I’d like to repost next door but I don’t think either of us is up for the fight with the anti vaxxers today.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. czarina33 says:

    Totally agree with him.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. jeans2nd says:

    Have told you all this story before, about the girl with whom we grew up, Maxine H.

    Maxine contracted polio before the vaccine. We younger kids were afraid of her. Maxine had steel braces on each leg, and steel crutches that fit to her elbows, just so she could walk a bit.
    We kids ran, rode bikes, climbed trees. Not so Maxine.
    Maxine died too young; there was no saving her.

    Have tried telling Maxine H’s story to others, a difficult task at best.
    One suspects Stella’s guy in the article would not substantially alter the anti-vaxxers views, either.
    We keep trying, though. It is a righteous cause.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lucille says:

    My vaccination certificates are stored with my passport for both the sugar cube oral treatment by Sabin which was given me in 1961 during my college years and the shot with the vaccine by Salk which was administered during 7th grade. I had every vaccine offered as did my sister during our grammar school years with absolutely no regrets.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. czarowniczy says:

    I was in elementary school in West Palm Beach in 1956 when the ‘polio season’ rolled around. We didn’t sweat it much but the parents did and we couldn’t be bothered less.

    That summer one of my classmates caught it, he lived but that Fall when he came back he had the big steel braces on one leg and those iconic crutches. Over the next 2 years he learned to walk again but he had a limp. He was the last kid I remember having it as they started vaccinating in earnest in the area though those of us who were dependents from the old military base there had been vaccinated much earlier that year.

    I can attest to the uncomfortableness of the iron lung as in 1957 I fell prey to one of the diseases that still plagued the area before it was the snowbird mecca it is today. There was a few of us who caught something, it was almost like an encephalitis but they couldn’t put a finger on it and never have. I ended up becoming progressively paralyzed and the doctor at the base hospital felt neither it nor the local hospitals could handle it and immediately arranged to have me admitted to the Brooks Army Medical Center in San Antonio. The base commander had his personal C-54 immediately rigged to accept the iron lung (that was done by my father and some of his then students at the base) and I was flown to Brooks where I spent about 6 weeks total in the iron lung before they were confident I could breathe reliably on my own. About 4 weeks of physical therapy followed before that same C-54 came back to pick me and my mother up and take us back to WPB.

    I can still remember, despite being ‘;out of it’ a lot, the sound of the mechanical bellows cycling, the feeling of the air pressure change and the slight movement in and out as the bellows cycled that required padding all around your neck to keep the diaphragm from rubbing you bloody. Oh yeah, the mirror above your head facing backwards so that you can look at something other than the steel container.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. czarowniczy says:

    BTW, he’s still practicing law in Dallas and his address is out there if you want to send him a card.

    Liked by 1 person

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