The early 20th century was dominated by technological advancements, especially in healthcare. One of the most successful inventions of the era was the iron lung, which enabled thousands of victims of respiratory diseases to breathe again.
Polio, in particular, was treated through the use of iron lungs. Whilst the disease has almost been completely eradicated thanks to the development of a vaccine in 1955, there were a number of deadly outbreaks in the 1940s and 50s. Children were particularly susceptible to the disease, and the vast majority of people who required respiratory treatment using an iron lung were children. However, very few of these children continued using the device into their adult lives. But one of the exceptions is 70-year-old Paul Alexander from Dallas, Texas, who has been using an iron lung since 1952. Paul contracted polio when he was just five years old, and it left him with permanent respiratory damage. The iron lung works by having patients lie inside it; the device is then tightly enclosed around their neck, creating an artificial vacuum which mechanically fills their lungs up with oxygen. It was not intended for long-term use. Paul’s continued reliance on the iron lung has therefore not been without its problems. The devices have not been manufactured since the 1960s, and he was forced to issue an online plea for help in 2015 when his lung started to malfunction. There are only 10 people left in the world who still use iron lungs, and they have to rely on costly and difficult-to-obtain spare parts. Thankfully, however, Paul’s plea for help was answered by a kindly mechanic named Brady Richards, who offered to help Paul get his iron lung back in tip-top condition.
“I looked for years to find someone who knew how to work on iron lungs,” Paul revealed in an interview with Gizmodo. “Brady Richards, it’s a miracle that I found him.”
The iron lung is so old that when Brady brought it into his workshop to repair, his younger staff had no idea what it was. “When we first brought the tube into the shop, one of my younger employees asked me what I was doing with these smoker grills,” he said. Tragically, it wasn’t just Paul’s lungs that were ravaged by polio. He was also paralyzed from the neck downwards. But despite his traumatic start in life, he never let his condition hold him back and achieved many of his dreams. He became a trial lawyer and is currently in the process of writing a book. Until his condition deteriorated, he was able to attend trails using a wheelchair and is writing his memoir using a pen in his mouth. Paul’s 2015 plea for help is featured below:
“When I transferred to University of Texas, they were horrified to think that I was going to bring my iron lung down, but I did, and I put it in the dorm, and I lived in the dorm with my iron lung,” Paul revealed.
“I had a thousand friends before it was over with, who all wanted to find out what’s that guy downstairs with a head sticking out of a machine doing here?”
Paul now spends the majority of his life inside the iron lung. Whilst there are modern alternatives available to the device, those paralyzed by polio have claimed that they are nowhere near as effective for treating their condition. Martha Ann Lillard, who has spent over 60 years using an iron lung, said, “I can’t use other types of ventilators because of inflammation that comes with Polio. I could be more rested if I stayed in the lung full time. But I choose to be up as much as possible.”
Paul’s lung is pictured above being repaired by Brady.
“Some people have said I’d rather die than leave my iron lung, and it makes it sound like I’m not trying to be modern, and it’s not like that at all,” Lillard added in an interview with NBC News.
“It feels wonderful, actually, if you’re not breathing well. When I was first put into it, it was such a relief. It makes all the difference when you’re not breathing.”
Lillard is pictured below as a young woman inside her iron lung. The last major outbreak of polio in the United States took place in 1952. However, it is not just humans who can suffer from outbreaks of respiratory diseases. A highly contagious dog flu recently ravaged the US. Watch this video to find out more: We hope that the last iron lung users get the assistance they need to keep their devices working.