Life in an iron lung is a test of tolerance

Reading a recent tribute to the life of Paul Alexander brought back horrible memories for me. Paul Alexander was only six years of age when he developed polio. The result? He spent the rest of his life enclosed in an iron lung. I too had polio in my final year at the Harvard Medical School. If my fate had been life in an iron lung, I would have begged someone to kill me.

It’s not just memories of polio that trouble me. It’s also some people’s long-festering misinterpretation of my stand on vaccines, including some editors who got my message totally wrong.

The polio vaccine hadn’t been invented when Alexander and I contracted the disease in the 1940s. Given the consequences for Alexander, he could have given in to depression. Rather, what he accomplished by sheer will power is astounding. He studied economics at the University of Texas and then took a law degree from the same university, all while enclosed in an iron lung.

A lifelong friend, Daniel Spinks, attributed Alexander’s successes to his positive attitude about life, sense of humour, and strong feeling about God. Spinks proved his dedication by driving Alexander to court appearances, which must have required bravery too, on both their parts.

Alexander was able to escape from his iron lung for up to six hours at a time by gulping air. But according to Spinks, as he got older, even short escapes were too difficult. Even so, Alexander lived his life telling people they could do great things.

In 1949, during my last year in training at Harvard, I awakened one morning with a devastating headache. Later that day I was admitted to hospital and a spinal test diagnosed polio. The following morning, I could not move my legs and paralysis of my abdominal muscles meant I could not sit up. I well remember distinguished professors telling me there was no way to stop the paralysis. I believed my plans to be a surgeon were finished.

But I got lucky. After several weeks of therapy, I regained the use of my muscles. And I did become a surgeon. It was a close call. Then vaccines in the early1950s became available to prevent polio.

I started reading about vaccines as a teenager and how Pasteur and other researchers had developed vaccines to prevent a number of diseases. To be clear, I have never, never been against vaccines. But I have warned readers that on rare occasions vaccines cause complications. Governments have paid compensation to some patients. Even aspirin can trigger problems, not to mention the dangerous side effects of many prescription drugs. But my column was discontinued in a few newspapers as some people screamed lies about my position on vaccines.

Readers will recall the anti-vaccination group of abhorrent protestors who brought chaos to Ottawa for several weeks. I wondered why it was allowed to last so long.

I also wondered how these rowdies would have reacted if a polio epidemic had been raging in Ottawa. What if they had witnessed people being paralyzed by this terrible disease? Would they have condemned these people to living the rest of their lives in an iron lung? Or would they acknowledge that the polio vaccine is the reason why such scenarios are unheard of today?

Vaccines have saved countless lives. They have occasionally brought harm to some as well. There is no perfection with vaccines or many other aspects of medicine. People need to inform themselves and make personal decisions. Everyone should respect the choices people make.

Reader responses would be highly welcomed.

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