DALLAS (AP) - As a tow-headed 6-year-old, Paul Alexander took apart everything, including his mother’s blender, simply to understand how it worked. His father would be close behind, putting the pieces back together.
Alexander didn’t know at that time there would be a day he wouldn’t be able to take things apart, wouldn’t be able to run around in the mud, or do other rambunctious activities the average 6-year-old could do. Paralytic polio would place him in an iron lung, a machine that forces air into his lungs with help from a pressurized system, about a week after he had checked into a Dallas hospital in 1952 and shortly after he was prematurely pronounced dead.
Now Alexander, who is in his late 60s, is one of 10 people in the world who still live in an iron lung. He contracted the deadly illness toward the end of a major United States polio outbreak, and said his survival into his 60s wouldn’t have been possible without the good hearts and grace of others like those in the Waxahachie Rotary Club. The Rotarians spent a recent Saturday morning building a ramp to help Alexander transport his 1,200-pound lung to and from the hospital more easily.
It’s that same hospitality that saved his life in the hospital when he was first diagnosed.
And it’s that same hospitality that helped him to finish three different college degrees, including one to become a practicing lawyer, which is his current occupation.
“I remember walking into my mom’s kitchen one day and her turning around and saying, ‘Oh no,’ and I was like, ‘Mom, I know I’m muddy and dripping on the floor,’” Alexander told the Waxahachie Daily Light ( “She said, ‘Paul go get a bath. Right now.’ After I got the mud off, she put me up in her bed and she knew instantly. Every parent in Dallas, and everywhere else, was so afraid that the polio epidemic was going to come see their child. So, she knew right away.”
Alexander was put into bed and given coloring books and crayons to keep him occupied. He said he spent the next week coloring as much as he could, as fast as he could. He didn’t know why, he said, except that he felt a compulsion to draw.
“Every day, I could do a little bit less,” he said. “Every day it was harder to hold onto the crayons.”
It was harder to move. It was harder to even sit up.
At one point, he could remember his father having to hold him up to keep him from falling off the toilet. Polio, which attacks the respiratory system and limb movement, paralyzed him from the neck down.
“It was like the devil going through my body,” Alexander said, crying. “Shooting all the lights out.”
Every day, he would get a little weaker, until the end of the week when doctors realized he wasn’t breathing. By the time his parents were able to get Alexander to the hospital, doctors pronounced him dead. They laid him aside, he said, with other children who hadn’t survived.
He doesn’t know how long he was there for when a doctor came by and re-examined him. The doctor noticed Alexander still had a fighting chance, picked him up in his arms and ran upstairs to place him in the iron lung.
He lay unconscious for several weeks later before he opened his eyes. He didn’t know if he had woken up in heaven or hell, he said, because he couldn’t move anything to figure out where he was and he couldn’t see anything because of a plastic cover hanging over the iron lung.
Only when he caught a glimpse of his mother between a small opening in the cover did he know everything was going to be all right, he said.
“Nobody ever knew what happened or why he picked me up, and unfortunately, I never got to ask him,” Alexander said. “But he picked me up in both arms and ran upstairs with me, and performed the tracheotomy, so they could get all the congestion out and so I could breathe. He did all that, and I don’t know what he saw - could’ve been nothing, could’ve been something - but for whatever reason he was motivated to save this one child.”
Alexander would stay in the hospital for nearly 18 months before he was released with his iron lung.
His parents would take care of him until 1971, when he decided to go to college.
“The early part was very, very scary, but I’m an Alexander,” he said. “My parents taught me to have a lot of pride and self-respect, and God taught me to believe I could do anything I dreamed of - and I did. So instead of letting Polio break me or kill me, I fought it hard. The more it would knock me down, the angrier I would get. That anger, I’ve often said, is what kept me alive.”
Because, again and again, and again and again, Alexander was pronounced dead at the hospital, he said. Doctors would walk by and tell others not to worry about him, he won’t make it until dinner time, he said.
There was never a moment when that defiance wasn’t there, he said. He would climb on his roof when he could still walk, just to see his world from another perspective, he said. That determination is what pushed him to go to college and what convinced his parents to allow him to do it on his own.
Two weeks before school started, his parents transported him and his iron lung to the University of Texas in Austin. Before he left Dallas to move, he hired another student to meet him and take care of him.
When he arrived at his dorm, the place was empty. This would be the first time he would be on his own. Shortly after, his parents left. They didn’t like it, he said, but they did it. On their way out, his father told him if he needed anything, to use a plastic stick with a pencil tied perpendicularly on the end to dial the phone near his head. If Alexander couldn’t handle it, he could take the stick in his mouth, push the buttons on the phone, and his parents would return immediately, he said. Alexander uses the stick today to type on a keyboard.
That was the end of security and comfort and love, because Mom and Dad were gone, he said, and nobody showed up afterward.
For three days, nobody knew Alexander was in the dorm, he said. No food, no water, no going to the bathroom.
“I was just lying there, and it was hard,” Alexander said. “I had gone from mom’s best cooking in the world, and being taken care of perfectly, to zero.”
On the second day, he said he was so miserable that he knew if he didn’t do something, he’d give in and call his dad. So, he took the stick in his mouth and threw it as far as he could across the room so he couldn’t make the phone call.
By the third night, he didn’t know where or who he was. He was scared, especially when he heard banging coming down the hall that night.
“They were loud and horrible sounds, and it scared me,” he said. “I thought the angels were coming after me. Already? I wasn’t ready. But it wasn’t angels; it was two guys moving in.”
The two men found Alexander, and said they would take care of him for the two weeks prior to school on one condition - he had to teach them how to take care of him. So, he did, and when the two weeks were nearly up, they helped post flyers around campus to find Alexander more help.
The last day before school started, the men were at their wit’s end, Alexander said. As the hours ticked by, the boys waited and waited, until late that afternoon, someone knocked on the door.
A young girl, who happened to be a registered nurse, said she was there to take care of him. God had sent her, he said she told him. She went on to take care of him for the entire semester.
That’s how Alexander started his 15-year-long process of earning three degrees, and almost finishing a few others.
Every single time someone has told him he couldn’t do something, or every single time he has felt at the end of the rope, someone suddenly comes along and gives Alexander a chance, he said.
From getting his degrees, to making his case in the courtroom, to finding someone who will hand pump a generator to keep him alive when the weather cuts the power to his house, to even writing a book and more, Alexander has been amazed by those who have come along to help. He said he wished others in Dallas and around the world would show more compassion, as those he has encountered.
The Rotarians build wheelchair ramps for someone about once a month as part of the Texas Ramp Project, said Waxahachie Rotarian Mike Fenton. The Waxahachie Rotary Club members found out about Alexander’s need through the Duncanville Rotary Club members.
“This is just what we do,” Fenton said.
“I told him (Alexander) there’s a price for all we’re doing for him, and he said ‘I know there’s no free lunch,’ and giggled,” Dave McSpadden, another Waxahachie Rotarian, added. “So, I said, ‘the main thing we want is, we want you to be the voice of ending polio. He said ‘that’s perfect, I’m qualified for that.’ So, he has that kind of sense of humor. Our whole thing is to serve our human family. That’s what we look for, is an opportunity to serve others.”
Yet, the ramp built in front of Alexander’s house is just another example of the compassion he’s been shown, he said.
“The Rotarians filled a need I had, and I said ‘I’m amazed and I don’t understand how you guys could be so giving and so caring,’” Alexander said. “They said, ‘Oh, Paul, we’re you’re family now. We are your new family.”
For the past 60 years Rotary International has been a leader in helping eradicate polio around the world. The Rotary Club’s motto is “Service Above Self,” with Rotarians serving in clubs around the globe working to improve lives in their community, as well as humanitarian efforts on a global scale - polio eradication being a primary mission.