The extraordinary life of Paul Alexander

A heart can love even in an iron lung

 A heart can love even in an iron lung  ING-012
22 March 2024

Life can be more or less easy. It can undergo terrible trials. It can hurt you to the point of crushing you under its weight. But it will always have purpose. And that purpose is giving oneself to others. Paul Alexander’s existence is a testament to precisely this: it doesn’t matter how restricted of a space life leaves you, there will always be enough room to love. Paul Alexander died on 11 March in Dallas, at 78 years old, 72 of which he spent in an iron lung. When he was six years old, Paul contracted poliomyelitis. It was 1952. The anti-polio vaccine would be discovered three years later. In the span of a few days, his body stiffened until he was completely immobile from the neck down. The doctors told his parents that he only had a few months left to live, and he was “enclosed” inside an iron lung that allowed him to breathe. Surprisingly, the child did not die, and with great stubbornness, he managed to learn to breathe despite his atrophied muscles. Over the years this allowed him to spend some time each day outside of the iron cylinder keeping him alive. Paul made good use of those hours in a surprising way: he got his high school diploma, then graduated from college, and passed his exams to become a lawyer. He even published his autobiography. It took him eight years because the only way he could write was by holding a pen in his mouth and patiently moving it across the pages of a small notebook.

Paul Alexander was driven by his deep faith in Jesus Christ, passed on to him by his parents, who were Pentecostal Christians. He had a cross with the words, “For God so loved the world” (Jn 3:16) placed on his iron lung. In an interview on the YouTube channel, Special books by special kids, which was viewed more than three million times, he highlighted the extent to which his parents’ love had shaped his life: “I had a whole life lived with them… [People] talk about God’s love. That’s just words”, he said, “but when you actually receive it, boy it’s something”. He did not keep the love he received to himself, but shared it generously. His closest friends described him as a joyful person who loved to laugh. One of them recalled his energy as so joyful and vibrant, that it was contagious. He was a man, who, as paradoxical as it may seem given his circumstances, loved life and knew how to enjoy it fully.

Over the years Paul realized that his witness could help many people who were suffering from illness or disability. He became an advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. He granted interviews to tell his story and show that, even if unable to do many things, every human being has unique value and infinite potential. What’s more, he was also an exceptional communicator who showed that even in the age of social media, image isn’t everything as long as you have good content to share. His TikTok channel, “Conversations with Paul”, has more than 400,000 followers, and many people comment on each of his videos. They are often people who are sick, thanking him for the confidence boost he has given them. In one of these videos, Paul responds to someone asking how he stays so positive “throughout all of life’s ups and downs”.

“Being positive is a way of life for me because I believe people in general to be positive people. They shouldn’t let things get them down because there’s no reason for that and no purpose for that. But there’s a great purpose in being positive. I’ve seen so many people suffer in my life and I learned not to let that bring me down but to try to contribute something good for that person. For example, if a girl comes in to visit, I’ll say, ‘God, you look great today, you look so pretty’, and she smiles, and that smile makes me happy”.

Paul Alexander’s life has given hope to those whose paths in some way crossed with his, and he will continue to do so, because his life, with all its sacrifices, had a purpose. With words that could well be a description of the existential parable of the man who lived in an iron lung, Václav Havel said, “Hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense”.

Alessandro Gisotti