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‘Polio Paul,’ who spent most of the past 70 years in an iron lung, dies at 78

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Posted at 11:39 AM, Mar 14, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-14 11:40:57-04

(CNN) — 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.

His death was announced Tuesday on a GoFundMe page set up to help pay for his housing and health care.

“It is absolutely incredible to read all the comments and know that so many people were inspired by Paul. I am just so grateful,” Philip said on the GoFundMe page.

The exact cause of Paul’s death is unclear. He was admitted to the hospital three weeks ago due to a Covid-19 infection but was no longer testing positive this week, Philip said.

“Paul, you will be missed but always remembered. Thanks for sharing your story with us,” Christopher Ulmer, organizer of the GoFundMe fundraiser, said on the page.

Paul developed polio in the summer of 1952, at the age of 6. It was the height of the polio epidemic; more than 21,000 paralytic polio cases were recorded that year in the United States, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Today, polio is considered eliminated in the United States thanks to vaccines that were developed in the late 1950s, according to the CDC.

The disease left Paul paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe on his own. He was placed in an iron lung, a large metal cylinder that varies air pressure to stimulate breathing, according to his autobiography.

“The doctors told us Paul could not possibly live,” Doris Alexander, Paul’s mother, said in his autobiography. “There were a few times when the electrical power failed and then the lung had to be pumped by hand. Our neighbors would run over and help us pump it.”

Paul spent the next seven decades in an iron lung. In March 2023, he was declared the longest surviving iron lung patient in the world by the Guinness World Records.

Paul’s ambitions were not limited by his condition. He learned breathing techniques that allowed him to leave the iron lung for a few hours at a time. He graduated college, earned a law degree and went on to practice as a courtroom attorney for 30 years.

He also self-published his autobiography, “Three Minutes for a Dog: My Life in an Iron Lung,” titled after the accomplishment of learning how to breathe independently for at least three minutes – a feat that took him a year to master and was rewarded with a dog, according to the book.

Paul told CNN in 2022 that he was working on a second book. He demonstrated his writing process, using a pen attached to a plastic stick held in his mouth to tap keys on a keyboard.

“I’ve got some big dreams. I’m not going to accept from anybody their limitations,” he said in the interview. “My life is incredible.

In January, he set up a “Polio Paul” TikTok account, where he described his life accomplishments and answered questions about life in an iron lung like “How do you go to the bathroom?” and “How do you stay so positive?” At the time of his death, he had 300,000 followers and more than 4.5 million likes.

Paul was also an advocate for polio vaccination. In his first TikTok video, he said, “the millions of children not protected against polio. They have to be, before there’s another epidemic.”