I watched Call the Midwife this Sunday, and, as usual, thought what a wonderful programme
it is, to not shy away from the huge problems that the world has made for itself over the years.
It brought to mind my only very short term contact with a thalidomide victim. This was in 1965 and on Staten Island, a borough of New York city. I played the organ for the chapel at the US Public Health Service Hospital where I worked as a student dietitian. The priest was a middle aged man, very pleasant, who I will call Father Mike, although I can't remember his name. One Sunday after Mass, he asked me if I would do him a favour. He was entertaining a young friend of his, who I will call Susie, and again, I have no idea what her real name was. He wanted to take her to a park for a picnic, and thought that a middle aged man wouldn't be able to cope with a young girl on his own. When he came to pick me up, and was without his clerical clothes, wearing a very bright print short sleeved shirt, and asked me to call him just Mike, it did certainly make me a little bit uncomfortable.
Susie was already in the car when Mike stopped for me, and she was a pretty and very confident child of perhaps 12. We went to a park with a play area, and had our picnic. Everyone had a good time, and Susie never stopped talking. She obviously knew Mike quite well, and this outing was not the first such experience she had had with him. She went on the swings and the slide, and seemed quite a normal happy child.
As we returned to the Nurses' Home where I lived, after having hamburgers for our evening meal, Mike asked me if I would take care of Susie. He had booked her a spare room in the nurses' home. I agreed, and would make sure she was all right in her room, and then call for her for breakfast the next morning before I returned her to Mike, for him to take her home. I have the idea that she came from an children's home, but I'm not sure that was ever stated.
Susie went to the ladies' room – and it was then that Mike dropped his bombshell. “Susie will need your help getting ready for bed,” he said. “She'll need to take off her legs, and then in the morning, you'll need to help her putt hem back on again. Will that be okay?”
I was dumbstruck. I hadn't realised Susie had artificial legs – she certainly managed them well. And the thought of having to do such a personal thing for her made me feel very inadequate and nervous. “Don't worry,” he said, noticing my discomfort. “She's used to people having to do it for her, and she won't be embarrassed. She'll tell you just what to do.”
So when we returned to the nurses home, we got the key for Susie's room, and I agreed that she could get herself organised, and I would return at 9, to help her take off her legs. As Mike had predicted, there was no embarrassment involved. Her prosthetic legs were attached to a waist harness. Susie showed me how to undo the clamps, and the legs were duly removed and placed by her bedside for morning. She snuggled down in bed with her trunk showing two little sprouts of legs with a few toes here and there.
I needed to take Susie's key with me, because she wouldn't be able to let me in in the morning. When I arrived at 7.30, she was in a panic to use the bathroom, so I carried her in, and then out again when she was done. We reattached her legs, without any hitch, other than the one required. She managed to dress herself, and then we went into the main hospital for breakfast, meeting Father Mike, as he had turned back into his uniformed self in the meantime.
The Midwife programme was set in 1961, but in 1965, Susie had already lived with her condition for at least 12 years. I did some research on the subject, and found that Thalidomide at its worst happened first in Germany in 1957 with tens of thousands of victims – but Susie's mother would have had to have had her medication years before that. 60% of the children whose mothers took the medication for morning sickness didn't survive. Then doing more reading on the subject, it turns out that the German pharmaceutical company had shared the drug with a French company many years before – so the dates are possible if her mother somehow had contact with their medication. The US Public Health Service Hospital was responsible for US military in the Coast Guard and also merchant seaman. So medication from Europe would not have been unlikely to be accessed through the men who travelled regularly abroad.
But now that I have remembered Susie and how well she coped, it gave me hope for the baby
in the Midwife programme. She was more disabled, not having arms either, but she did have the advantage of a family who loved her and would do their best for her.