2014-11-07 / Front Page

Gina Strong: friends rally for injured woman

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

Gina Page and her dog, Seamus, were featured in the Sentry’s Pet of the Week feature. Page, now a quadriplegic, had to choose whether she wanted to live that way or not. (Courtesy photo) Gina Page and her dog, Seamus, were featured in the Sentry’s Pet of the Week feature. Page, now a quadriplegic, had to choose whether she wanted to live that way or not. (Courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — You’ve probably seen them on sale at places like Broadway Variety and Evelyn’s Tavern — T-shirts sporting a shamrock and the words, “GINA STRONG.”

They’re being sold to support medical care for Gina Page and, given the number of people in South Portland who know and love her, you’re likely to see more than few of the shirts walking around the city in coming weeks.

Currently, Page is confined to a bed at Maine Medical Center, where she’s been hooked to a respirator for the past month, fighting for her life.

Page has had physical problems from birth, due to scoliosis, in her case a congenital condition, which resulted in a side to side curve in her spine.

“She’s had a hard and difficult life,” said her husband, Dan Page. “When she was 7, she spent a year in a body cast at the Children’s Hospital in Boston.”

Still, despite never growing above 5 feet in height, Page developed a large, outgoing personality, becoming a fast friend to all who met her.

“She is such a sweetheart and has never let anything in her life slow her down. She has a great sense of humor and a big work ethic,” said comedian Bob Marley, a pal since their college days in Farmington 30 years ago.

“She’s a kind-hearted person with a brilliant, heart-warming smile,” said Diana Gokey, a more recent friend of 10 years. “She always makes you feel like you are her best friend, even though we all know she has hundreds of friends. She’s someone who, despite all her physical struggles, has always moved forward with positive energy.”

On Oct. 12, Gina Page, 47, suddenly stopped breathing while climbing into the tub of her North Richland Street home. Problems with her lungs have been a persistent issue in recent years, said her husband. The lack of oxygen resulted in a fall and a heart attack. Luckily, Page did not sustain a head injury in the fall, but she may have permanently injured her spine.

“Since then, she’s been a quadriplegic,” said Dan Page. “Four days after the fall, the doctors told us, she’ll probably never come off the ventilator. She’ll probably never speak again.”

Suddenly, the Pages were faced with a life-or-death choice — Gina could go into rehabilitation and try to learn to somehow live with her new condition, or doctors could take her off life support, effectively ending her life.

Gina’s decision came as a bit of a shock to her husband, given that, with her condition, they had previously discussed just such an eventuality.

“She always told me, it if ever came to it, that she wanted to pass away,” Page said. “She had actually said, ‘I want you to kill me. I don’t want to be in a wheelchair.’ But when push came to shove, she told me, through facial movements and my new found lip reading skills, ‘I’m going to fight it.’”

“And she can do it, I’m sure,” Page said. “She’s a hell of a fighter. She’s fought her whole life.”

“Back 30 years ago, this neighborhood was kind of crazy,” said the Page’s friend Cindy Billingslea, owner of Evenlyn’s Tavern on Sawyer Street. “People just didn’t come down here. But she had no fear. This place became her home away from home. She was always the life of every party. She just is life. You meet Gina, you love Gina.”

It was at Evelyn’s Tavern where Gina and Dan met, 20 years ago.

“It was just me and her and Cindy, the bartender, in the place at the time,” Dan said. “My sister had just died of lung cancer and I went up and told her she really shouldn’t smoke.”

Gina, ever the quipster, told Page what he could do with his advice. Nevertheless, a conversation was started and Gina told a friend, later that night, ‘I’m going to marry him.”

“And she did, although it took nine years,” said Page, with a laugh.

Page proposed atop the Empire State Building on St. Patrick’s Day 2003.

“She’s overcome so many things in life, it was wonderful to see her so happy,” Billingslea said.

Five years ago, doctor’s told Gina they’d like to fuse her neck, to help increase her stability.

“They said if the operation went wrong, it might end up in paralysis,” Billingslea said. “She said, ‘No, I’d rather live my life the way it is.’ She always knew there might be a fall that was going to screw up her neck and stuff.”

“This was the fall,” said Billingslea, from behind the bar at Evelyn’s, the tears welling up in her eyes. “It was just horrifying when I found out. I can’t even talk about it right now.”

While Gina continues to stabilize at MMC, struggling past recent setbacks, Page has turned his attention to the future and retrofitting their home to care for a quadriplegic. A wheelchair life, a rebuilt bathroom, a den that will become, in essence, a hospital ward – it all costs money.

In addition to T-shirt sales, a Jan. 25 benefit at which Marley expects to participate is planned to help defray costs.

“Basically, she’s like Christopher Reeve,” said Page, referring to the actor who played Superman and lived his final years as a quadriplegic following a riding accident. “But she can do it. She’s a real Superwoman.”

“Before this tragic event, Gina had been through a very difficult year,” Gokey said. “Her father, known to all as ‘Dude,’ passed away. Her mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. Her sister, with whom she is very close, recently moved to Florida. Despite all of this, Gina kept pushing through.”

“Now, we are all here for her with all of our love and support, helping this mini-force of nature continue to defy the odds,” Gokey said. “If anyone can pull a miracle out of a hat, it’s Gina. Ask anyone.”

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