June 22, 2024

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Iron Lung: This is how the medical device works

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DallasPaul lives in an iron lung for 70 years – what is it?

Paul Alexander, now 77, has been living in an iron lung since contracting polio in 1952.

Justin Arbor
Van
  • American Paul Alexander has been living in an iron lung for 72 years.

  • This device was the forerunner of the ventilator and continued to be used to treat polio.

  • As of 2018, there are still six people using iron lungs worldwide.

When six-year-old Paul of Dallas was treated for symptoms of polio in the summer of 1952, doctors felt there was nothing they could do. He will die. But he surprised everyone.

Paul Alexander is now 77 years old and keeps posting about his life on social media. Because he has been living in an iron lung since that fateful day. “I breathe better in an iron lung. It's a natural breathing that no other device can do,” he says.

What is an iron lung?

The iron lung was the first device that made artificial, long-term mechanical ventilation possible for humans. According to the University of Greifswald, it was first used in 1928 at Children's Hospital in Boston. It was originally intended to treat victims of electric and gas poisoning.

Victims often had to remain in this “coffin of steel” for months, years or even a lifetime. They were able to breathe passively to a certain extent due to the periodic change of positive and negative pressure and movement of the chest wall. The neck was covered by a cuff, and only the head looked out of the device.

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Production of the devices ceased in 1970. The maintenance contracts expired in 2004.

How can milk breathe through an iron lung?

There is air between the machine body and the wall. Air flows into the iron lungs: then the milky chest rises, allowing fresh air to be breathed. Then the machine works in reverse. The air comes out of the device again: the milk breast then falls. The air he breathes is expelled from the lungs: he breathes.

Despite mechanical support, milk can breathe ambient air without hoses, compressors and valves. In an emergency, the electric drive can continue uninterrupted with a hand crank.

How were your experiences in Switzerland?

According to the medical collection at the University of Zurich, experiences with the device have not been very positive. From the end of 1945 to 1950 the vault was used for about 70 patients at ZH, mostly adults with polio. But only two of these can be saved from “certain death”. Most died, some hours later, the rest weeks later. Diaphragm failure and further organ failure could not be prevented.

How many people still live in iron lungs?

Besides Paul Alexander, Martha Mason also spent a large part of her life in the iron lung. He died in 2009 at the age of 72. By that time, he had already spent more than six decades in medical devices.

As of 2018, there are six known patients worldwide living on iron lungs (at least for sleeping), three of them in the United States.

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