A Life's Story
May 22, 2021
Resilience, perseverance in pursuit of normal life
Pat McNeill, 82, grappled with, raised awareness of polio after-effects
By: Joel Schlesinger
Roger McNeill says not much rattled his wife Pat — but miller moths terrified her.
"With a moth in the house, she would freak out," he says of his wife, who died Oct. 22, 2020, at age 82.
That a tiny bug riled her always struck her husband as ironic, given all she had gone through.
Pat McNeill, after all, had survived polio — a disease that had a lasting impact on her life. Consequently, as a young adult, she often wondered if she would lead a life many took for granted: getting married and raising a family.
Of course, she did get married, even if courtship started inauspiciously.
Roger recalls spilling red wine all over her white outfit on their first date in the mid-1960s. Yet, she agreed to another date, and another. Eventually, marriage came up.
"She said, ‘I want to have kids.’ And I said, ‘Oh, gee… we’re getting kind of old,’" he recounts, adding they were in the early 30s.
"She said: ‘No kids, no me.’"
It was among the first of many minor disagreements the couple would have over the next 50-plus years together that Pat McNeill — who was stubbornly persistent — would almost always win.
But he was glad he agreed to her terms: "She was a wonderful wife, mother and a best friend."
Born Patricia Peterson on Feb. 9, 1938, life did not start out all that wonderfully.
Hospitalized as a toddler with polio, she recovered and bore few ill effects until her teens when she developed severe scoliosis — a rare side-effect of the infectious disease.
"She had to be taken to Minneapolis… for special surgery," says Roberta Fitzgerald, one of four of her younger sisters.
The procedure involved removing pieces of McNeill’s shin bones and inserting them in her back to straighten her curving spine.
"When she came home, she had a cast from her legs to the top of her head," Roberta says.
The cast stayed on for about a year, with the teen immobile much of that time.
"We’d try to steal her chocolates, but she would catch us," Roberta says about how the other sisters attempted to take advantage.
Her sister did not mind; instead, those moments were marked by laughter. McNeill always loved a good laugh, Roberta says.
"She never once complained. She never felt sorry for herself or cried."
Resilience and perseverance were hallmarks of her character, family members agree.
Rather than falling into despair, she was determined to pursue a normal life. In her mind, she was undoubtedly rewarded: her two sons, Glenn and Todd.
"When she got pregnant, she was just so excited," Roberta recalls. "She didn’t think she’d be able to carry kids because of her posture."
Motherhood suited her. McNeill was the "quintessential caring and loving mom," says her eldest son Glenn.
"We were the house where the kids would play baseball in the backyard and have lunch," he says about growing up in their Kimberly Avenue home in the 1970s in East Kildonan.
Rarely would their mom talk about polio. When it did come up, she spoke about how she had been unsure whether she could have children, Glenn says.
"So I think she was probably overly grateful to have met my dad and started a family."
Although McNeill led a relatively normal life, raising a family, in her late 50s, she began suffering from post-polio syndrome — affecting her lungs, leaving her exhausted.
Yet, she was undaunted, even when seeking help from the medical community, which during the mid-1990s was slow to recognize the syndrome, Roger says.
"It was just thought that polio doesn’t come back."
She continued to search for help. That led her to find others suffering from post-polio syndrome through the Post-Polio Network. Among those contacts was a woman who gave birth while in an iron lung — a coffin-like ventilator that aided lungs paralyzed by polio.
As the years passed, McNeill’s symptoms worsened. At one point, she spent nearly 10 days on a ventilator.
"We thought we lost her," Roger says, adding his wife recovered, but required supplemental oxygen for the next 27 years.
While upset her freedom was tied to a tank, McNeill carried on in characteristic fashion. She did not complain, but would not sit by quietly either.
She believed it was important to raise awareness of post-polio syndrome. Among her efforts was participating in a research project, "Polio and Post-Polio: an Oral History" — in which 29 survivors, McNeill included, shared experiences.
She also found joy as a grandmother, often gleefully hiding candies around the apartment for her grandson, Noel, to find.
Her generous spirit had a long history. As a parent, she was a regular volunteer at Melrose Community Club, and always willing to help out with her boys’ activities, including as an acting Beaver Scout leader.
McNeill also cherished time spent with her husband. "They were constant companions," Glenn notes.
Although increasingly frail, her death came unexpectedly: within 48 hours after being admitted to hospital, after a fall.
"It was a sad ending for someone who fought through all the other stuff," Roger says.
"I am very grateful to have had her as my wife."