“I was four years old, lying in my parents’ feather bed, burning with fever and unable to raise my head or legs. My dad scooped me into his arms, wrapped me in my pink blanket and carried me to Mom waiting in the car. But when we got to the emergency room at the University of Michigan hospital, the attendant turned us away.
“I’m sorry, sir,’ he told my father. ‘A contagious disease is on the rampage, and we’re taking all precautionary steps. You’ll need to take her to the isolation building.’ He pointed us to the hospital laundry they had converted into a quarantine facility with 24 beds.
“As I sank in and out of consciousness, I remember excruciating pain from the spinal tap which confirmed my diagnosis. Polio. “I woke in a baby bed in a sterile room. Unable to move, I looked around to see my parents watching me through a window. They were crying.”
Virginia (Ginger) Ford pours out this and other stories from her life as a polio survivor in a memoir titled Ginger Stands Her Ground. While the first four pages might break your heart, her stories of family, faith and love will pull it back together – just as they did her little body. Reflecting on her life and her book, Ginger sits in her recliner surrounded by photo albums of her family and looking out over Portage Lake, where she has lived for nearly 50 years.
“My mother was Virginia Mary, so my parents named me Virginia Marie. My father used to call her ‘Gin’ and he called me Ginger. ‘That’s a root stock,’ he used to say, ‘sturdy and strong.’ I liked being a root and having a spicy name,” Ginger laughs as she recounts stories from her life and book. “I remember pea-green walls, radiators bubbling and spurting, sucking and hissing of the iron lung machines just outside the room. They terrified me at first, but before long they melded into my days, just like the therapies I endured to bring life back to my legs. Massages, hydrotherapy, stretching and the awful Sister Kenny treatments. They put searing wool packs on my back and legs to let the heat loosen my muscles. To this day, when I smell hot wool, my skin starts to itch! “But the isolation from my family was worse. Seeing my mom through the window but not being able to touch her or hear about my brothers and sisters – oh! That was hard. Mom was allowed one 10-minute visit with me during my quarantine. I felt devastated when she couldn’t hold me or take me home, but her love enveloped me and gave me hope. She said, ‘Jesus is with you, he’ll give us both the courage we need.’ Knowing she was praying for me and waiting to bring me home gave me hope.
“I knew every night that, during family rosary time, everyone was praying for me and that I was included in all their prayers and their acts of charity to our church. I had two sisters and five brothers then, plus Grandma. That’s a lot of prayers!
“It must have worked, because after six months I left the hospital in leg braces. I used crutches to walk and began the arduous process of regaining my strength and mobility.
“I had a well-worn path to my grandma’s house to visit while she went about her day. She taught me our family history and the role of our Catholic faith in our lives. Every Friday evening, she and my mother took me to St. Mary Church in Pinckney for the Sorrowful Mother Novena. Over the years, it switched to the Perpetual Help Novena, but it always ended with the song “Good Night, Sweet Jesus.” That became my theme song through all my surgeries and ordeals.” Ginger sings softly from that faraway time, “Good night, Sweet Jesus, good night, good night. Waking or sleeping, keep us in sight. Dear Gentle Savior, good night.
“Through my six surgeries, I knew Jesus and my family were watching over me. Our priest from St. Joseph in Dexter, Father Walsh, used to visit me in the hospital. He always brought me Whitman’s chocolates, which I love to this day. Those bright yellow boxes brightened my hospital room like sunshine.
“When I made my first Communion and couldn’t get up to the altar, Father Walsh assured me, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll bring Jesus down to you.’ I just knew Jesus was with me when I needed him. That was a very big help.
“When my differences got the better of me and I wondered why I had to go through all this, Father Walsh encouraged me to offer it all up. ‘We all have our crosses,’ he said. ‘When we offer them up to Christ it helps us connect with God and bring his mercy to this world.’ I understood that Jesus did what he did so I can do what I have to.
“You can either be bitter or better,” Ginger shrugs. “What good does it do to be bitter? Still, that was hard to remember when teen magazines told us to get upset about something like crooked teeth or acne. I remember girlfriends with such negative attitudes about their bodies, and I could never understand it because they could walk. They could play kickball!
“The polio vaccine came out when I was 10. Everyone celebrated and began looking to the future when polio would be gone. In a way, though, it left survivors behind because no one wanted to talk about or try to understand the experience of those of us living with it. We were expected to get on with our lives.
“I did – by strategizing all my moves to make sure I didn’t slip or trip, arriving close to an entrance, finding accessible buildings before trying to get in. I made it through high school, then college and graduate school. I had a full career as an elementary teacher in Dexter, married Eric and raised our children, David and Marietta, at our house on Portage Lake. My faith was strengthened so many times along the way by powerful encounters with Christ’s love and presence through our home parish, St. Mary Church, and, later, Holy Spirit in Brighton.
“Often in the Bible, God says, ‘I have given you a stern struggle’; and ‘Be steadfast in your efforts. Trust the Lord.’ But over and over, it also says, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Every time there was a barrier I couldn’t get over, I found a way around or through.
“This book took me 10 years to write. So many times, I thought, ‘How am I going to do this?’ But when the time was right, God brought me the people and circumstances to get it done.
“In John’s Gospel, Chapter 6 verse 9, Andrew asks, ‘Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?’ Jesus takes that little bit of food and feeds thousands. “This is my loaves and fishes,” Ginger says. “I feel like I am taking my story to Jesus and he’s taking it to heart. Hopefully this memoir will inspire people to grow as dynamic disciples in the Lord, so we can share the faith in love and joy!”
Ginger Stands Her Ground is available in paperback or Amazon’s Kindle, or from the Holy Spirit Church Gift Shop in Brighton.