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Thalidomide survivor Pat McNeil and family.

Courtesy of the Family

Pat McNeil was a victim of two global health crises, one when he was born, the other when he was dying. Mr. McNeil, who has died at the age of 61, was a thalidomide baby, one of many born in Canada.

In spite of his disability at birth, Mr. McNeil led an active, successful life. He played sports in school, skied as an adult and was a branch manager at Toronto-Dominion Bank in Winnipeg.

The second health crisis was COVID-19. At the end of his life, Mr. McNeil was in a palliative-care facility in Winnipeg, with cancer that was unrelated to his health problems at birth. His family was refused access to see him because of the pandemic.

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That happened in May and, after a public campaign, partly waged on the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press, the restriction was relaxed somewhat. “It was ridiculous that fully vaccinated members of his family couldn’t visit him, but at the same time hockey fans could go to a Winnipeg Jets game,” said his cousin, Joan Flood, a physician who helped organize the campaign.

Joseph Patrick McNeil was born in Winnipeg in 1960. His mother, Anne Zelinsky, was a school secretary and his father, Lloyd McNeil, was a salesman.

During her pregnancy, Pat’s mother was given a sample of thalidomide by her obstetrician to help her deal with severe morning sickness. At that time thalidomide had already been reported as the cause of significant birth defects and miscarriages in Europe, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had refused to approve it. But the drug continued to be prescribed in Canada.

“Officials of the Food and Drug Directorate in Canada had access to the same information upon which U.S. officials based their decision to deny approval for the use of the drug in the United States,” wrote the Canadian thalidomide task force, set up by survivors, in a 1989 report.

Pat was born without hands and with deformed but functional feet. He had a long partial left arm and a right arm that extended below the elbow. His family was in shock. But his parents adjusted, because they had to. One kind doctor said to Lloyd McNeil: “He will never play the piano, but can you?”

“Pat’s parents raised him to be resourceful and independent: Don’t give up and never be ashamed or use your disability as a crutch,” said his wife, Jo-Anne McNeil. “When he started school, his parents would take him in on the first day to explain to other children about his differences and how he could do what they could do.”

Pat started kindergarten in a private home school. He spent the first three years of primary school at St. Clements Catholic School in Winnipeg. He then went to the public system at Neil Campbell School, followed by John Henderson Junior High and Miles Macdonell Collegiate. He was an excellent student, graduated on the honour roll and earned a degree in economics at the University of Winnipeg.

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Mr. McNeil’s disability did not hold him back in his adult life. One of his first jobs was at Eaton’s in Winnipeg. He then joined TD Bank, starting as a management trainee and worked his way up from a teller, finally becoming a branch manager. He retired in 2015 after 30 years of service.

He mastered every aspect of modern life.

“He did all his own e-mails and when he was working on a mortgage application he would write with a pen between his two hands,” Mrs. McNeil said.

Mr. McNeil was also an accomplished handyman and took on many do-it-yourself projects. He built decks at both his home and cottage and completely refinished the interior of the family cabin at Lester Beach, 100 kilometres north of the city on Lake Winnipeg. “When he built the rec room at home or the interior of our cottage, he used power tools. My husband was an amazing man,” Mrs. McNeil said.

Pat McNeil and his wife attended many of the annual conferences of the Thalidomide Victims Association. He and others worked to press the federal government to provide support for severely disabled victims, people who were unable to work and some who needed full-time care.

“The whole basis of it was that the Canadian government approved the drug even when it was already causing deformities in newborns,” Mrs. McNeil said. “They were trying to rally the government to provide support to people who were severely disabled.”

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The campaign was championed by The Globe and Mail and reporters Ingrid Peritz and André Picard.

The Canadian Thalidomide Survivors Support Program was started by the federal government in 2015.

One of Mr. McNeil’s other volunteer associations was as a board member, and eventually chair, of the Children’s Rehabilitation Foundation in Winnipeg, at the former Shriners’ Hospital. It raised funds for prosthetic limbs, computers, custom bikes and other equipment for disabled children to improve their quality of life.

Pat McNeil was one of only about five thalidomide victims in Winnipeg. The thalidomide task force said the federal government reported in November, 1963, that “115 children had been born in Canada in 1961 and 1962 with congenital malformations associated with thalidomide. At that date, only 74 were reported to have survived. These numbers are not reliable. Our task force has identified 109 victims.”

Canada banned the drug in 1962.

Pat McNeil’s deformities were mild, compared with others who were born with internal organ damage or hands that protruded from their shoulders. There was a vast array of deformities. His mother only took the drug once but it was at a time when Pat’s limbs were developing in his mother’s uterus. It meant his deformities were severe but they could have been worse.

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“Pat never used his situation as an excuse for not trying anything. Even when it came to changing diapers on his newborn daughters, he would joke that he had to get a lot closer,” said Mrs. McNeil. “But things were harder for him: Try tying a necktie or using a drill with no hands. He did that and so much more in his life. Those who know him would never say he was disabled.”

Pat’s younger sister, Margaret Penner, known in the family as Missy, helped her brother with things such as doing up buttons and zippers when they were children. She added that from an early age he had a love affair with cars.

“He could tell you any make, model and year of car from decades ago,” said Mrs. Penner. “When Pat got his licence they put on a restriction for power steering and automatic transmission. This really bothered him. He did not want to be made to feel different or have limitations, so he arranged to get tested again to lift the restriction. He was successful. Years later he bought a sports car with a stick shift.”

Joseph Patrick McNeil was born in Winnipeg on June 28, 1960. He died in Winnipeg on July 14, 2021, from cancer. He leaves his wife, Jo-Anne; his daughters, Taylor and Sarah; and his sisters, Margaret Penner and Kay Bileski. A brother, Michael, predeceased him.

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