Gore Bay paramedic, family are focus of friends’ and neighbours’ efforts

GORE BAY – Island paramedic Paul Zilio is facing an aggressive strain of cancer and his family has launched a GoFundMe page to ensure his wife and four children are supported as he takes a leave of absence to undergo medical treatment.

“If Paul is off for who knows how long, short-term disability only pays 60 percent. They were worried because they have four kids under their roof,” said Jennifer Zilio, Mr. Zilio’s sister, who launched the GoFundMe page on February 18. “I was just trying to take the stress off them.”

The responses have been swift and generous. After the first week, the family had already raised $5,000 toward their $20,000 goal. 

“It’s definitely eased some pressure off their minds,” Jennifer Zilio said. “People have been sharing stories and trying to give their best pep talks and whatnot. Everybody has been very generous.”

Six weeks ago, Mr. Zilio began experiencing digestive issues but the family expected it to be a relatively minor infection. After all, he was in the best shape of his life—even better than when he completed basic training in the military more than two decades ago. In fact, he and his wife were almost halfway to getting their black belts through Manitoulin School of Martial Arts.

His doctor sent him for a precautionary colonoscopy and examiners discovered a tumour. It was difficult news for the family but they were determined to treat the disease.

Shocking news arrived in the following week when they learned that the cancer was also in his bones and his bloodstream. He could still undergo radiation and chemotherapy but surgery was no longer an option.

“Once chemo is done, which should be by the end of May, that’s when they’ll say it’s terminal. They’re saying he has, with hope, one year. With extreme hope, two years,” Renee Zilio, Mr. Zilio’s wife, told The Expositor.

Ms. Zilio was supposed to start working at The Flower Hutch in Gore Bay on the day her husband learned of his tumour. Shop owner Janis Hutchinson was understanding about her inability to work for the foreseeable future and offered use of the store as a drop-off point for in-person donations.

Ms. Zilio is trained as an accountant but Mr. Zilio has been the sole income source for the family for some time. Once he finishes treatment, Ms. Zilio will have to find work.

Renee and Paul Zilio

Mr. Zilio has already begun radiation at Northern Cancer Centre in Sudbury and will eventually take his chemotherapy at Manitoulin Health Centre’s Mindemoya site.

The news has been challenging for the whole Zilio family but Ms. Zilio said she was amazed by the strength of their four children—Victoria, 21; Monica, 17; Matteo, 14 and Joseph, nine.

“They’ve been acting like they’ve always been: loving, supportive and strong,” she said, adding that there have been challenging moments, such as when they learned how widely the disease had spread.

One night, the children were playing and laughing. They felt guilty the next morning and asked their mom if it was inappropriate, given the gravity of the situation.

“I told them ‘no.’ I said, ‘let’s give Dad, if he’s only got a year, the best year we can,’” said Ms. Zilio. “We’re not fancy people, we don’t live the high life; we just do things together as a family and that’s what we’re doing—reliving old memories and making new, happy ones. It’s what he deserves.” 

Paul Zilio has a history of resilience

Mr. and Ms. Zilio met at three years old, after having been born three months apart in Orangeville. Their families attended church together and the two were almost always in the same class. 

Ms. Zilio’s family moved to Sudbury but she returned to Orangeville to stay with relatives. Her aunt, who was dying of cancer, asked Ms. Zilio to join her for a final trip to the bar, where Ms. Zilio ran into her childhood friend who would later become her husband.

Twenty-five years later, including 22 years of marriage, the two are still best friends.

After his brief military stint, Mr. Zilio was unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. He found inspiration when he recalled the day his mother had a brain aneurism in front of the family a few years prior.

He was moved by the way the paramedics had treated her with care and dignity and realized he wanted to be that person: the one who saves lives or, at the very least, comforts people facing challenging situations.

Mr. Zilio completed training and began working with Manitoulin-Sudbury Paramedic Service in 2010. The family moved to the Island as he worked part-time across Manitoulin, holding out for a full-time position. He eventually found that in the family’s favourite community of Gore Bay.

“We bought our house and moved the family here, and it’s one of the best moves we’ve ever made. This is just such a wonderful community—it is home,” Ms. Zilio said.

Paul Zilio

Mr. Zilio has faced prior injury setbacks on the job. During basic training in the military he hurt his ankle, which ultimately made him miss out on his desired trade. Then, three days after the family moved into their Gore Bay home, he almost severed his spinal cord while at work.

In all of the incidents, Mr. Zilio has beaten the odds of recovery. His surgeon thought he might never walk again after his back injury, much less return to work, but he did both of those and later went on to begin martial arts training with his wife and three of his children. The Zilios were hoping to get their green belts this year.

“He’s a very strong guy. I hope that we can prove the doctors wrong, I really do. All of this has to count for something. The community support, the love from the family, being in his best shape ever, that has to count,” Ms. Zilio said.

Finding strength

The Zilios are members of Immaculate Heart of Mary in Gore Bay and said the church community has been key to this journey.

“We know that God is with us, whether Paul is going to live or die. We know that He’s with us, and we know that our friends and family are with us. It doesn’t take (the pain) away, but it makes it bearable,” Ms. Zilio said.

Many Islanders have dropped off meals and other necessities for the family and the paramedic service has been widely supportive of the Zilios, from emotional support to arranging transportation to medical appointments and running a freezer meal drive for the family. One paramedic has offered to bring the Zilio boys to their sugar bush when the sap starts to run and Mr. Zilio’s work partner of six years, Peter Finlay, began an internal fundraiser before the family launched the GoFundMe page.

“We honestly couldn’t ask for better support. These are true health care providers, on and off shift,” Ms. Zilio said. “I don’t have words to express how grateful we are. If not for all of this (support), this would be so much darker.”

While the GoFundMe account has been a blessing for some financial surety, Ms. Zilio said the best part of it has been scrolling through the names of people who have offered support.

“Some are our childhood friends, some are friends we’ve made here on the Island. It’s spanned our lifetime, really,” she said, adding that even old elementary school classmates and teachers have come forward to help out.

Ultimately, said Ms. Zilio, the family is trying its best to keep moving forward without feeling overwhelmed by grief.

“Tragedy is going to strike; it does. It’s all in how you deal with it, and I believe the best way to overcome any kind of tragedy is love. Love will get you through anything. Love yourself, love the people around you and love God,” she said.

To help the Zilio family, visit GoFundMe.com/f/paul-zilios-fight-against-cancer or drop off a donation in person at The Flower Hutch in Gore Bay.