Po­lio to per­se­ver­ance

When ill­ness isn’t the end of the story.

The Beacon (Gander) - - Front Page - BY CLARENCE NGOH clarence.ngoh@gan­der­bea­con.ca

Two lit­tle girls played out in the fields in Gan­der, seem­ingly with­out a care in the world. Their mother would peek out oc­ca­sion­ally from the house to check on them.

On her fi­nal check, she found her two girls, Ginny, 2 and Glo­ria, 3 un­able to sit up and look­ing lethar­gic. They were brought in­side the house, where both showed were be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ill.

Ginny Gill re­calls her body was quickly be­com­ing rigid as she and her sis­ter were rushed to the hospital.

“By the time we were ad­mit­ted, my lit­tle spine had tight­ened and curved so se­verely that my head was aim­ing to­wards my heels,” Gill said.

The year was 1954 when the dev­as­tat­ing news was given to her parents. Gill and Glo­ria had con­tracted po­lio and there was no cure.

It was not un­til a year later that the po­lio vac­cine was re­leased to the masses.

Po­lio, short for po­liomyeli­tis, is caused by a po­liovirus. It is a crip­pling and po­ten­tially deadly in­fec­tious dis­ease. It can spread from per­son to per­son and can in­vade a per­son’s brain and spinal cord, caus­ing paral­y­sis.

Some peo­ple can re­cover from it. Glo­ria did re­cover af­ter six weeks. A dif­fer­ent path lay ahead for Ginny Gill.

The Sun­shine Camp on Thor­burn Road in St. John’s is where Gill spent a large por­tion of her child­hood. Orig­i­nally a sum­mer camp for un­der­priv­i­leged chil­dren, the po­lio epi­demic forced the con­ver­sion of the fa­cil­ity into a chil­dren’s re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre.

Al­most ev­ery six months, a trip to St. John’s was made for check­ups, but the travel was try­ing, whether by train or by car.

“Travel was very dif­fi­cult in the 1950s and 60s,” Gill ex­plains.

“It was an eight-hour drive to St. John’s over rough roads and they were not paved. We would en­counter chal­lenges like flat tires along the way.”

Mo­tion sick­ness was an ad­di­tional chal­lenge to the long trips. But Gill found com­fort in a snack that made travel eas­ier – Scot­ties chips would hold the mo­tion sick­ness at bay.

“I re­mem­ber those trips well – it was al­ways mem­o­rable,” she said. “It was never a bad ex­pe­ri­ence, ex­cept for the nausea.”

Her trips to Sun­shine Camp were of­ten bit­ter­sweet. Gill would spend months at a time away from her fam­ily.

“Mum had to stay home with a baby and Glo­ria, who by now had fully re­cu­per­ated. As was common prac­tice in those years, be­cause Dad had to get back to work, he had to leave me there alone.”

Her long­est term at Sun­shine Camp was one year and Gill re­calls that her grand­par­ents and mother came to see her once, but her fa­ther couldn’t make it. It would have been a try­ing time for the fam­ily.

The trips to Sun­shine Camp were nec­es­sary as surgery was per­formed to fuse Gill’s bones as they length­ened, to make the growth of her legs even. This was fol­lowed by months of phys­io­ther­apy, and the time it took to cus­tom build a set of braces.

“I was in and out of surgery and physio was tough, but out­side of that I can’t think of any­thing bad. I re­ally can’t,” Gill said.

Much ef­fort was made by dif­fer­ent vol­un­teer groups to make the chil­dren’s stay at the camp eas­ier. They pro­vided ac­tiv­i­ties like weekly movies, Hal­loween events, fire­works on bon­fire night, as well as Christ­mas par­ties, Easter fun and win­ter and sum­mer­time ac­tiv­i­ties, Gill said. The chil­dren at the camp were not granted spe­cial treat­ment in many ways and were en­cour­aged to be in­de­pen­dent, while be­ing closely su­per­vised.

“The nurses were al­most like mums to us and made sure we be­haved prop­erly and gen­tly pun­ished us when we didn’t,” Gill said.

“They saw to it that we all did what we could for our­selves. To this day, I still make my bed like a hospital bed.”

Hardly any con­ces­sions were made at home ei­ther. Gill’s parents ex­pected her to main­tain her home re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

“I had to clean the bed­room floors and did the dishes. The only thing I was not asked to do was bring the gro­ceries home,” she said. “But I did every­thing else.”

Gill does not see her­self as dis­abled, but some peo­ple did not think the same.

When she was board­ing in trade school, the girl that lived with her told Gill she had ex­pected her room­mate to be a spoiled brat. The girl quickly re­al­ized she had made a wrong as­sump­tion as Ginny was quick to pitch in and do her part.

In an­other in­stance be­fore she got mar­ried, a per­son asked her fiancé, Walt, if he was re­ally go­ing to marry Gill.

“I pa­pered ceil­ings to the floor, I raised two kids, helped Walt run a busi­ness and worked at the same time. No­body would be­lieve what I do in a day,” Gill said.

“We (po­lio vic­tims) don’t give up. I don’t know what it is. Most of us are go-get­ters. It may be that when you were in Sun­shine Camp, you did every­thing for your­self. We weren’t ba­bied or pam­pered.”

Gill said there are a few down­sides to be­ing phys­i­cally dis­abled, such as hav­ing to go for surgery and physio, but that also brought a lot of good things into her life.

“I hon­estly can’t re­mem­ber ever wish­ing I never had po­lio. I used to think I was so lucky be­cause of it,” she said. “Most of all, my luck came from know­ing the kind­ness of those who cared for us.”


Ginny Gill spent most of her child­hood in the Sun­shine Camp on Thor­burn Road in St. John’s. She con­tracted po­lio when she was two and her re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and surgery took place at the camp. Many life lessons were taught but the one she took away was kind­ness.

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