In an article titled “The Last of the Iron Lungs,” Gizmodo gives a fascinating yet chilling look at the lives of the remaining polio victims dependent on iron lungs. One of the common refrains throughout the piece and echoed by the polio victims is the fear that anti-vaxers will usher in a new polio epidemic. In that eventuality, the article’s title will be proven false. If anti-vaxers have their way, the iron lung may cease to be a relic of a bygone tragic era.
Among the polio victims featured in the article, Paul Alexander, 70, became a successful lawyer despite being confined to an iron lung for most of the day. Writer Jennings Brown explains: “Alexander, who got polio in 1952 when he was 6, is almost entirely paralyzed below the neck but that hasn’t stopped him from going to law school and becoming a trial lawyer.”
“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,” he told Gizmodo. “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?”
According to the article, “Alexander hasn’t been to a trial in a few years now as it has become nearly impossible for him to get out of the iron lung for a few hours like he used to do when he went to court and represented clients in a wheel chair.”
Alexander’s story is simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking. To be confronted with the unbreakable human spirit is uplifting. Alexander’s life is one that deserves to be praised as an example of grit, hard work, and the constant refusal to allow oneself to be defined by negative and even tragic circumstances.
On the other hand, watching him labor to breathe inside the huge, iron contraption is a reminder of how some of our fellow humans have been asked to bear a burden that is incomprehensibly heavy. Regardless of his amazing accomplishments, Paul Alexander had his life upended by polio. As a six-year-old boy, he lost the ability to run and play and even to breathe on his own. Polio robbed him of a life filled with feeling sand between his toes, having tree branches rub roughly against his hands as he climbs among the leaves, and the feel of the mighty surf waging war against his sand castles. No doubt, and based on his own words, Paul Alexander would’ve loved to have had access to the polio vaccine that didn’t come to America until 1955.
Thanks to Jonas Salk, scores of children have been spared a life inside of the iron lung that Paul Alexander calls his home most of the time. Because of the polio vaccine, the dreaded disease that ravaged thousands upon thousands was eradicated in this country. The last known case of polio in the U.S. was confirmed in 1979.
The director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s polio eradication effort told Brown, “It was hailed as a medical miracle and the excitement about it was really unparalleled as far as health history in the United States. No one who remembers the 1950s, in terms of polio, wants to go back there and be in that situation again.”
Brown’s article tells the story of several remarkable survivors of polio, but he writes:
Another thing [the subjects of his article] all had in common is a desire for the next generations to know about them so we’ll realize how fortunate we are to have vaccines. “When children inquire what happened to me, I tell them the nerve wires that tell my muscles what to do were damaged by a virus,” Mona said. “And ask them if they have had their vaccine to prevent this. No one has ever argued with me.”
Alexander told me that if he had kids he would have made sure they were vaccinated. “Now, my worst thought is that polio’s come back,” he said. “If there’s so many people who’ve not been—children, especially—have not been vaccinated… I don’t even want to think about it.”
While reading Brown’s compelling article, I was struck by Mona’s words, “And [I] ask them if they have had their vaccine to prevent this. No one has ever argued with me.”
Sadly, anti-vaxers are a growing irrational and dangerous presence in our country. Through their selfish, uneducated, conspiracy-theory driven lunacy, they are putting children at risk. Hopefully, stories like “The Last of the Iron Lungs” will help wake people up, and the trend of not vaccinating children will be reversed. If not, iron lungs may become quite common again.