Australian Woman Returns to Work as Summer Camp Director after Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation
On Labor Day 2011, Beigette Gill lay on an overgrown logging road in a remote forest in northern New Hampshire. Her mountain bike had hit a hole concealed by weeds. She was thrown over the handlebars and struck her head on the ground. Beigette couldn’t move.
While her husband Jim, who was biking alongside her, called for help on his cell phone, she kept telling herself, “Just breathe. Just breathe.”
Now, reflecting on the accident, 33-year-old Beigette says: “Life is so precious, and in any moment, it can change. So you have to make the most of every moment.”
The Gills were already living and teaching this approach to life before Beigette’s accident, which left her with an incomplete C-6 to -7 spinal cord injury. They own and operate Fernwood Cove, a summer camp for girls ages 8 to 15. Nestled in a rural area 40 miles northwest of Portland, Maine, Fernwood Cove and the Gills introduce campers to simple living and the values of community, responsibility, tradition, respect for nature, diversity and learning.
After Beigette’s injury, it was seven months before she was able return to the life and camp she loves. But during months of rigorous rehabilitation at Shepherd Center, Beigette began to see similarities between the two places. “We both look at what is possible and focus on that,” she says.
Just after the accident, while Beigette was hospitalized in Portland, Jim began looking into what was possible for his wife. He researched hospitals specializing in spinal cord injury (SCI) rehabilitation and became convinced that Shepherd Center was the place for Beigette. “I mentioned it to a nurse at the hospital, and she said they had a lot of people go there, and it’s the best in the country,” Jim recalls.
He faced a number of appeals and hurdles with his insurance company to get Beigette to Shepherd Center, but eventually prevailed in persuading the company that she required specialized rehabilitation.
Beigette’s mother, Cecelia Beveridge, arrived from Beigette’s hometown of Barradine, Australia, and accompanied her to Atlanta. Jim stayed in Maine with their two young children – Sylvie, 3, and Perrin, 1, at the time Beigette was injured – to run the household and their business. Beigette also received regular visits at Shepherd Center from Maurice and Tricia Rosenbaum of Atlanta and their three daughters, all of whom attended Fernwood Cove. “When we first visited her, I was so upset that this had happened, thinking about her children and how it would impact her life,” Tricia says.
But in subsequent visits, Beigette’s improvement astonished Tricia. “I was so impressed,” she adds. “I’d always heard great things about Shepherd Center, but I was truly amazed at the progress Beigette had made.”
Beigette’s outlook had a lot to do with it. “Some patients have a really hard time coping initially with their injury,” says Jennifer Smith, a physical therapist who treated Beigette in Shepherd’s SCI Inpatient Program. “But Beigette never complained. She had a great attitude and work ethic, and she was willing to try anything. She was determined to work her butt off.”
Beigette recalls the impact of her rehabilitation experience. “Shepherd was my home for seven months,” she says. “I felt welcome, like I belonged there. I knew everyone and got to hear their stories, and see their strength and courage. They prepared me so well for my life at home.”
Anna Elmers, M.D., Beigette’s inpatient physician at Shepherd, also credits Beigette’s outlook with her progress. “The Gills are just great people,” Dr. Elmers says. “They had issues like every other patient, but they were so easy. No ‘Why me?’ They were so low-key, and the treatment team just adopted them. We called Beigette ‘the wonder from down under’ because she never complained.”
Beigette explains: ”I never said, ‘I can’t.’ I always said, ‘I’ll try.’”
Back in Maine, Jim enlisted the help of an engineer, and in eight hours they designed a fully accessible modular home that was built at the camp in six weeks. It was finished on Christmas Eve 2011, and Beigette came home the next day. She stayed five days, and then returned to Shepherd Center until early April 2012.
Meanwhile, Jim’s preparations for the 2012 camp season included two things he’d never dealt with before. For one thing, parents wanted to know how Beigette’s injury would affect the camp and, of course, their children.
“They worried about instability,” Jim says. “It’s a change, and in today’s society, people go on the defensive and err on the side of caution. I told them Beigette is coming back. She’s going to be here. Physically, she may be different, but she’s still the same person. My point was it’s not like we’re getting a divorce.”
The other surprise was the outpouring of getwell letters and cards, most of them handmade by campers. Posted in the reception area of the camp’s administration building, they covered a wall 30 feet across and seven feet high.
“Dear Beigette,” wrote a fifth grader, “I miss you and camp so much. I heard about your bike accident. Are you OK? I hope you are OK. Whether you’re in a wheelchair or not, you are still the same person that all the girls at camp love. Love, Julia. PS: Fernwood Cove is the best.”
Fernwood Cove is a rustic mix of renovated old cabins and handsome, timber-frame buildings on 220 acres at the edge of a small lake. Activities include ceramics, art, cooking, music and gymnastics, along with more traditional outdoor activities, such as hiking, canoeing, kayaking, sailing and waterskiing.
By late June 2012, the first session of camp was under way, and Jim and Beigette sat one afternoon on the balcony of The Chick, an unfinished lakeside building that will house theatrical productions and other activities. The temperature was in the high 70s, the camp was awash in sunshine and a gentle breeze carried the sweet scent of clover.
Given the camp’s values and goals, cell phones, computers and video games are not allowed, and there is no electricity in the cabins. Campers wear white T-shirts and green shorts. Personal drama and cliques are discouraged, and eye-rolling, disparaging behavior and any form of exclusion are forbidden. The girls choose their own activities and manage their daily affairs, and when troubled, they are encouraged to speak up.
“We want them to learn how to advocate for themselves,” Beigette says. “It gives them a sense of independence and self-esteem. We emphasize simple living, and the uniform takes the emphasis away from image and materialistic things. Since there’s no electricity in the bunks, they gather around flashlights, and that brings kids together. They learn consideration for others and to respect each other and their belongings, and how to live together. It’s like one big family and community, and I saw that at Shepherd Center, too. (Co-founder) Alana Shepherd visits everyone, everyone smiles at you, and the nurses and therapists all know who you are. It was a warm and welcoming feeling, which is not typical for an institution.”
Because a three-and-a-half week session at Fernwood Cove is expensive, most of the campers come from affluent backgrounds, and resistance to simple living would seem inevitable. But it’s not so.
“They’re given everything, and we take it all away, and they’re happier,” Jim says. “So who’s doing them a service? The parents by giving them the clothes, iPad and iPhone, or us by taking take all the stuff away, putting them in uniforms and teaching them personal skills and how to have personal relationships?”
The Gills brought some of the values with them from a camp where they worked before buying Fernwood Cove, but they also reflect the thinking of American mythologist and author Joseph Campbell. Essentially, the message is: Live an extraordinary life in an ordinary world.
“The prize,” Jim says, “is to be able to be yourself and be a kinder person and make the world a better place. All the drama, all the media and all the negativity you are bombarded with don’t matter. If you can maintain that, then you are helping other people, as well as yourself.”
And, they say, because the girls get to know each other at a deeper level, they make friendships that last a lifetime.
Some parents chose not to send their children back to Fernwood Cove in 2012. Attendance at the first session this past summer was 191 – 29 fewer than the same period in 2011. But the second session had nine more than last year, and some parents said it never crossed their mind not to send their girls back.
“Our kids have had such a great experience there that, if anything, my reaction was the opposite,” Maurice Rosenbaum says. “There was never a doubt they would go back and see what Beigette could do and see her spirit. It was great for my daughters to see how she and Jim made it a teachable moment.”
“That Beigette has made such incredible progress, she could be a poster child for possibilities,” says parent David Shapiro of Baltimore. “And a lot of it has to do with Shepherd Center’s help.”
Beigette returned to her role as camp co-director at Fernwood Cove this past summer.
When each camp session began, Beigette visited the cabins to dispel any concerns and, she hoped, to teach the campers to accept people with disabilities. She began with the seniors – 15- year-olds – telling them that how they perceived and acted toward her would influence the younger girls.
But when she’d finished speaking, one of the girls asked, “How’s your left-handed writing?”
Another said, “So how was your day today?”
And when she met with the younger girls, an 8-year-old said, “When are we going to get mail?”
She knew then that the wheelchair didn’t bother the girls. She was still Beigette to them, and nothing else mattered. “They already accept me for who I am,” Beigette says. “They don’t see the chair; they see the person.”
Jim even used Beigette’s situation as leverage with girls who were homesick or anxious. “I’d tell them to learn something new – roll in a kayak, maybe – and when they’d say, ‘No, that’s too hard,’ I’d say, ‘If Beigette can do it, you can, too.’ And their eyes would get real big.”
Beigette has regained movement in her left hand and leg and had no trouble maneuvering her chair around the camp. But she was unable to do many of the things she loved, such as waterskiing, so every evening Jim carried her into the cabins so she could visit with the girls.
The bigger challenge, she discovered, was taking time for herself.
“I love talking with the kids and being out and about,” she says. “Being in my house doing therapy is not where my heart is.”
Jim adds, “We have the greatest jobs in the world, but our focus is not about us, so this has been hard for Beigette.”
Nevertheless, Beigette continued to do the yoga that she began at Shepherd Center, and one day Jim was startled to find that instead of waiting for him to return and lift her into her wheelchair, Beigette had used yoga blocks to do it herself.
It didn’t surprise Amy Mattila, the camp’s counselor-in-training coordinator, who has known the Gills for 10 years.
“If they ask people to embrace the extraordinary world and way of life, they have to live it themselves,” Amy says. “And this is the moment where they’ve showed the rest of us that, ‘Yes, we do live it. This is our life. We will be extraordinary through the good and the bad.’ They’re incredible people. I feel lucky to know them.”
A gentle breeze blew in off the lake as Beigette pushed herself up out of her chair, stretching her legs. Two smiling 11-year-olds walked past, an arm over each other’s shoulders, and waved.
“What you hear in our society all the time is what’s wrong,” Jim says, “and what we teach is possibilities. We recognize acts of kindness and goodness, and they do the same thing at Shepherd Center. They say: ‘OK, you had an injury. It’s stable now, and you’re here. Let’s see what you can do.’ They’re all about possibilities, too. I’m still trying to come up with a slogan that Shepherd staff could put on their shirts – something like, ‘I work in possibilities.’”
Written by John Christensen
Photos by Joe Phelan and Louie Favorite
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.