Paul Alexander: Iron lung user dies at 78

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DALLAS (AP) — A Texas man who spent most of his 78 years using an iron lung chamber and built a large following on social media, recounting his life from contracting polio in the 1940s to earning a law degree, has died.

Paul Alexander died Monday at a Dallas hospital, said Daniel Spinks, a longtime friend. He said Alexander had recently been hospitalized after being diagnosed with COVID-19 but did not know the cause of death.

Alexander was 6 when he began using an iron lung, a cylinder that encased his body as the air pressure in the chamber forced air into and out of his lungs. In recent years he had millions of views on his TikTok account called “Conversations With Paul.”

“He loved to laugh,” Spinks said. “He was just one of the bright stars of this world.”

Alexander told The Dallas Morning News in 2018 that he was powered by faith, and that what drove his motivation to succeed was his late parents, who he called “magical” and “extraordinary souls.”

“They just loved me,” he told the newspaper. “They said, ‘You can do anything.’ And I believed it.”

The newspaper reported that Alexander was left paralyzed from the neck down by polio, and operated a plastic implement in his mouth to write emails and answer the phone.

Alexander earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Texas in 1978 and a law degree from the school in 1984.

Polio was once one of the nation’s most feared diseases, with annual outbreaks causing thousands of cases of paralysis. The disease mostly affects children.

Vaccines became available starting in 1955, and a national vaccination campaign cut the annual number of U.S. cases to less than 100 in the 1960s and fewer than 10 in the 1970s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1979, polio was declared eliminated in the U.S., meaning it was no longer routinely spread.