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The disease can have symptoms similar to the flu and in about 2 to 10 cases out of 100, it ends in death.

Life in the iron lung as the only option

Kristina Valachyová
02.Nov 2021
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5 minutes to read
Muž v železných plicích Paul Alexander

Life in the iron lung. Close your eyes and imagine that your whole body is trapped in a large contraption made of steel. It might remind you of a scene from the Saw horror movie series. You can barely move your arms and legs, and you're spending your days staring at the ceiling hoping that someone will bring you water and food. In the following article, we will take a closer look at how unenviable life after polio, an illness against which we have effective vaccinations today, can be.

Paul Alexander

Meet iron lung.

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Železné plíce.
Železné plíce.Source: Profimedia

The device in the picture above is called the "iron lung." In the 1920s, iron lungs became a salvation for people who were prevented from breathing naturally on their own by an insidious disease.

Prodej luxusního domu, Praha - západ - 414 m2
Prodej luxusního domu, Praha - západ - 414 m2, Okolí Prahy

He lives in a machine due to a virus we have a vaccine for today

Prodej luxusního domu, Praha - západ - 414 m2
Prodej luxusního domu, Praha - západ - 414 m2, Okolí Prahy

Alexander Paul from Texas has been imprisoned in a submarine-like contraption for nearly 70 years. As a child, he contracted polio, which caused him to become paralyzed from the neck down. Since then, he has not been able to breathe independently and relies on a machine that replaces the job of his lungs. Paul talks openly about his life, in which he is completely dependent on a device that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. Although science has advanced and more modern aids are available now, the American claims that only this model suits him.

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Alexander Paul rozmlouvá s ošetřovatelkou.
Alexander Paul rozmlouvá s ošetřovatelkou. Source: Dallas News

One day, little Alexander was playing in front of his house. Suddenly he began to feel as if he were running a fever. He went to his mother, who immediately sensed what was going on.

"Oh my God, please, not my son,"

Alexander repeated his mother's words for a video report by Mitch Summers.

Over the next few days, the disease rendered him unable to walk and later to breathe.

"I remember having terrible pain in my legs, and breathing became really strenuous. So they eventually took me to Parkland,"

he said for Health Day.

He never gave up and became an excellent lawyer

18 months later, his parents brought little Alexander home paralyzed from the neck down. But he didn't let that stop him. He graduated from high school. When he applied for college, he was initially rejected because of being "crippled", and because he had not been vaccinated against polio. However, he later studied law and, according to his own words, he was "damn good at it." With the help of friends, he was able to leave the iron lung and get in a wheelchair, in which he attended court.

"I remember the horror in the eyes of the people responsible for running the University of Texas dorms when I had my iron lung dragged into the student room. My room was crowded with classmates back then, everyone wanted to see me lying there with the machine breathing for me. Now there are only about two or three of us in the world who use this model,"

says Paul. During his time in the iron lungs, he engages in various activities - he watches television, reads books, and can use a computer, too. He even wrote his own biography.

The disease destroys nerve cells in the spinal cord, which can lead to paralysis or even death.

"It was a disease that terrorized humanity,"

Steve Cochi of the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention said for the Star Tribune.

The public learned about this strange, monstrous-looking respiratory device in 2015. That was when a video was published in which Alexander Paul pointed out the lack of spare parts for these devices. Iron lungs, which use pressure cylinders to pump oxygen to a person's lungs by creating a vacuum, were once common, according to the Independent. Most people only used them for a week until they started breathing on their own. However, they have become a part of life for patients with permanent lung damage.

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Alexander Paul dýchá ve stroji připomínajícím ponorku.
Alexander Paul dýchá ve stroji připomínajícím ponorku. Source: Dallas News

Today, new cases of polio have been almost eradicated through vaccination. However, they still appear in countries such as Laos, Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are more common in only two countries - Afghanistan and Pakistan. The CDC states that the disease may have symptoms similar to the flu and in about 2-10 cases out of 100 it ends in death.

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Americký prezident Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Americký prezident Franklin D. Roosevelt.Source: Profimedia

Not even prominent people escaped the disease. The most famous victim was US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He spent the last years of his life in a wheelchair due to polio.

Anti-vaxxers make my heart ache

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Martha Lillardová.
Martha Lillardová.Source: NBC News

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Martha Lillardová.
Martha Lillardová.Source: NBC News

Martha Lillard from Oklahoma, 69, is one of the few people who still use the iron lung. She can't get the anti-vaxxer campaigns.

"I contracted polio at the age of five. I have suffered a lot and I can never lead a normal life. I know my mother would have given everything in the world to make vaccines available back then.”

At the time of the greatest outbreak of the polio virus, more than 15,000 children were affected each year in America alone. Why, despite the fact that we have effective weapons against polio today, are some people doing everything they can to bring the disease back? No case of polio has been recorded in Slovakia since 1960. It would be a shame if that were to change.

She fell ill two weeks before she was to walk down the aisle

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June Middletonová.
June Middletonová.Source: Polio Australia

June Middleton from Australia, for instance, had to lie in the device that allowed her to breathe 21 hours a day for 60 years. The iron lung kept her alive until her death in 2009. She lived to be 83 years old. June could only leave the tube for a short amount of time. She endured her situation with humor. The woman fell ill during a polio epidemic just two weeks before she was to walk down the aisle. She decorated her iron lung with posters of Carlton football team players, which she greatly admired.

"When I sleep with 49 men, I don't need a blanket."

she joked.

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June Middletonová.
June Middletonová.Source: Polio Australia

She died of a power outage

One of the youngest victims of polio was American Dianne Odell. The Tennessee woman spent almost 61 years - with the exception of a few months - in the iron lung. Thanks to her parents, she could be homeschooled, although she had to do her homework lying down and dictate the correct answers on the recorder. She spent ten years writing a book about her difficult life, dictating the entire text. Dianne appeared both in the press and on television, and was even visited by former US Vice President Al Gore. She died in May 2008 due to a power outage.

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Dianne Odellová.
Dianne Odellová. Source: Independent

Although the iron lung resembles a medieval torture instrument, it has saved the lives of many people. A number of treatment methods that look quite non-standard from today's point of view have been used in the past. Have a look at some of the most bizarre medical procedures from the past that might make you appreciate modern medicine.


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Plombage.Source: Journal of Medicine

Plombage was a risky treatment for tuberculosis, in which the surgeon created a cavity in the upper part of the patient's chest wall. To make the lung collapse, a hole was drilled between the patient's ribs and the space was filled with various materials - ping pong balls, oil, rubber sheeting or gauze. The theory was that a collapsed lung would eventually heal itself. Of course, the treatment was not without side effects.


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Píchání heroinu.
Píchání heroinu. Source: Freepik

In the past, heroin was used as a non-addictive drug to treat asthma, bronchitis or tuberculosis. It became a hit among physicians and its use was approved by many states. However, it turned out that it was actually quite addictive. Over time, its production became illegal.

Hydroelectric baths for the treatment of migraine

Bathing with a toaster or something similar can be fatal. Decades ago, however, doctors recommended treating migraines by lying in a hot tub with a weak electric current flowing through the water. Doctors eventually became sceptical about the results of this method.

Radon water

Does your spine hurt? Radiation therapy will surely help you. In the past, radon-enriched water was sold in regular shops. People used to drink it to cure everything from arthritis to impotence. Of course, it was a terrible idea and people began to die as a result of this miraculous treatment. The special water even killed the then-famous playboy Eben Byers, to whom its use caused a cardiac arrest. After his death, a headline appeared in the Wall Street Journal:

"The radioactive water worked well until his jaw dropped."

Sadly, in the course of time, many mistakes and decisions have been made that have sometimes done more harm than good. Nevertheless, even the cruellest mistakes in medicine could have played a role in paving the way for modern medicine as we know it today, one step at a time.

Sources: TASR, Unitedlife, Greelane, Fresheroll, Wall Street Journal, News, Pluska, own inquiry

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