By Susan Ciancio
The human will is a spectacular thing. I was reminded of this recently as I watched a YouTube video about one of the last remaining people living in an iron lung. After watching this video, I felt compelled to learn more of this man’s fascinating story. So I searched and found an impressive article that chronicles his life and accomplishments.
Yes, the man in an iron lung has many accomplishments.
His name is Paul Alexander. At age six, Paul caught polio. His condition quickly deteriorated, and he became paralyzed from the neck down. Confined to an iron lung in the hospital for 18 months, Paul was miserable. But he was also determined.
Paul then met a therapist from the March for Dimes who taught him to make conscious movements so that he could breathe on his own during some of his waking hours. It took Paul a year of practice, but he was finally able to do so. This allowed him to go home and to spend time outside the iron lung.
Still paralyzed, he was however, able to sit upright in a wheelchair when he was outside the lung. He remembers fondly the support of his family and of friends in the neighborhood, who would push him around in his chair and take him to the movies or to restaurants.
As Paul grew, his determination grew as well. Living in a time when few disabled people were seen or acknowledged, Paul refused to let his disability stop him from following his dreams.
To help him return to school and do schoolwork, Paul’s father fashioned a pen to a stick, which Paul would put in his mouth to write. He was able to graduate high school, then fought to be admitted to college. After college, he went to law school and passed the bar.
Paul then spent many years practicing law and living on his own. He had a caregiver and friends who loved and cared for him.
Paul still uses that same writing apparatus in his mouth but also uses it to type on a computer. He has even written a book entitled Three Minutes for a Dog that tells the amazing story of his life.
Paul is now 75 years old, and because of declining health must again be confined to the iron lung at all times. But he has not allowed that to stop him from living. He just lives differently.
This powerful story reminds us of the importance of treating people—no matter their ability and no matter where they live—with compassion. Everyone has intrinsic worth. And everyone has the right to live a life filled with joy and accomplishments.
When we see people such as Paul do what to most of us is unimaginable, we realize that life is what you make of it. We all encounter difficulties, hardships, disappointments, and tragedies, but it’s what we do with those sufferings and how we react to them that define who we are as people.
However, it’s not just how we react to our own life circumstances. It’s how we react to the circumstances of those around us—our elderly parents, our friends, our neighbors, or our fellow parishioners.
Paul would have not been able to survive—and thrive—had he not been blessed with the loving support of friends and family.
We do not live in this world alone. We all rely on each other for something. Just as we would want someone to help us in times of hardship, so must we be there for the people in our lives.
Paul is living proof of what someone can do when supported, loved, and given the opportunity to succeed. Imagine what would have happened if his parents would have just “put him out of his misery” when he was younger. Or imagine what would have happened if Paul had chosen assisted suicide because he didn’t want to live. The world would have missed out on his story, his example, and his inspiration.
Instead, the people in Paul’s life made him feel valued, cherished, and worthy.
We may not ever have the chance to do what his friends and family did—and still do—for him, but we all have the responsibility to help the people in our lives feel valued and cherished. And we have the responsibility to teach our children this as well. When we raise children with compassion for others and with a respect for people of all abilities, we create a kinder world.
That is why the Culture of Life Studies Program created a lesson entitled Without Mercy: An Introduction to Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide, and Other Threats to the Medically Vulnerable. This lesson helps teens examine the complex topics of euthanasia and assisted suicide, and it teaches them the reality behind what the culture of death advocates regarding end-of-life issues. This lesson uses Church documents, the Catechism, and subject-matter experts to give students the tools they need to defend those teachings against current cultural attitudes and pro-euthanasia arguments. Through discussion questions, case studies, real-life scenarios, and essay questions, students will gain an understanding of euthanasia and assisted suicide and will learn how to articulate their beliefs so that they can stand up for those who are vulnerable or nearing the end of their lives.
And stand up we all must, for the culture of death is insidious. If we do not teach our children compassion and a respect for all people, they will not learn it.
So use this opportunity to talk to your children. Give them examples of resiliency like Paul Alexander’s. Help them understand that people can do amazing things, no matter what kind of limitations they may face.
It is our job here on earth to act in the person of Christ. When we do so, we are truly living the gospel message that Christ taught. And that will get us one step closer to hearing those words we so long to hear upon our death: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”