DALLAS – The machine is what people see first. The submarinelike metal cylinder dominates the room, rhythmically humming and pulsating as it helps keep Paul Alexander alive.
A big tube, a motor, a moving arm. The Dallas lawyer has spent much of his life in a can, a childhood victim of a once-epidemic disease that menaced the nation and now leaves him at the mercy of a mechanical respirator. Though unable to move from the neck down, he refused to be limited by his metal prison, finding success in both the classroom and the courtroom.
Sometimes clients visiting his home would ask: What is that thing you’re in? Is it a sauna?
No, he would say. It’s an iron lung. I had polio as a kid.
Then, some would ask: What’s polio?
No one makes iron lungs anymore. Barely a handful of people still use the hulking respirators. He’s dependent on a nearly obsolete machine. Without it, he’d run out of breath.“That’s how close I walk the line between life and death,” he said.
Alexander, 72, has been using one since he was 6, his lungs and muscles ravaged by paralytic polio. “Polio was the horror of the day,” he said. “It was like the Black Plague.”
The disease destroys nerve cells in the spinal cord. “It was a disease that terrorized a community,” said Steve Cochi of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its most famous victim was President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Until 1955, when Jonas Salk developed the vaccine that would largely eradicate the disease globally, polio reached pandemic levels. The worst year was 1952, said PolioToday.org, with nearly 58,000 reported cases causing 3,100 deaths and paralyzing more than 21,000.
That summer, Alexander was playing outside his Pleasant Grove home, when he suddenly felt like going back inside. As he walked in, his mother saw him and her face froze. “Oh, my God,” he recalled her saying. “She knew instantly,” he said. He still wonders how.
The family kept Paul home after their doctor suggested he’d be better off recovering there than at a hospital teeming with sick kids. But when he had trouble breathing, he was rushed to the hospital, where he underwent a tracheotomy and woke up in a plastic, steam-filled tent — and an iron lung. “I figured I’d gone to hell,” he said.
It would be 18 months before he went home, paralyzed from the neck down.
But for a boy who wanted nothing more than to go to school, it was a turning point.
“I knew that was the road to a future,” he said. “To become something.”
One of Dallas ISD’s first home-schooled students, Alexander learned to memorize instead of taking notes. He graduated second in his class from W.W. Samuell High in 1967 — “The only reason I didn’t get first,” he said, “is because I couldn’t do the biology lab.”
Next came Southern Methodist University, where he got around with the help of volunteers from Alpha Phi Omega fraternity before transferring to University of Texas at Austin. There, he earned his bachelor’s and law degrees. He spent his career practicing family law and helping people filing for bankruptcy fight off creditors.
When he was younger, some tried to discourage Alexander from imagining he could accomplish what he’s done. He credits his motivation to succeed to a spirit of defiance and, most of all, to his late parents, whom he describes as “extraordinary souls. Magical.”
“They just loved me,” he said. “They said, ‘You can do anything.’ And I believed it.”