Polio to perseverance
When illness isn’t the end of the story.
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.