Thalidomide Survivor Has High Hopes For Call The Midwife Storyline
Like millions of proud new mums, Mena Moriarty was brimming with excitement as she took baby Rosie on their first trip to the shops together.
But she was reminded in the cruellest way that her daughter, who was born with no limbs as a result of her mother taking thalidomide, wasn’t like other babies.
“She said: ‘Oh what a beautiful baby!’” says Rosie. “Then she pulled my blanket back and saw just two fingers coming out of each shoulder.
“Then she said: ‘Oh my God it’s a freak!’ and went screaming up the road. My mother was devastated.
“It had taken a lot of courage for her to take me out.
“And this made her wonder: ‘How am I going to cope if that’s the reaction I get every time I go out?’”
The Moriartys were just one of hundreds of families across Britain who endured years of heartache as a result of the dreaded drug’s legacy.
Now the new series of Call the Midwife , which starts on Sunday, will shine new light on this dark chapter of British history – the first time the issue has been tackled in a TV drama.
Producers are using Rosie’s biography, Four Fingers and Thirteen Toes, as inspiration after she wrote to demand the BBC drama tackled the subject.
There’s now hope the resulting thalidomide storyline will help those affected by the sinister sedative as they fight for recognition and compensation.
The pill, used to treat an array of ailments, was first prescribed in the UK in April, 1958.
As a result of it being used by pregnant mothers, usually for sleeplessness and morning sickness, over four years 2,000 British babies were born with a range of disabilities .
Around the world, it affected at least 20,000 infants. But, after considering the number of global miscarriages caused by the drug, that number could be as high as 100,000.
It was the worst man-made peacetime disaster in history. Far worse than 9/11, the sinking of the Titanic, or even Chernobyl.
Babies affected by thalidomide
Worldwide including miscarriages
Yet the drug’s licence wasn’t withdrawn until December 1961 when doctors spotted the link between the “safe wonderdrug” and the spate of physical abnormalities.
And the British government only informed doctors to stop using thalidomide in May 1962.
For those impaired by thalidomide, their greatest hurdle was the ignorance and prejudice they faced.
“There have been so many awful moments growing up,” says Rosie, 55, who lives in Cardiff.
“I remember going out with mates to a nightclub and being told: ‘You can’t come in because you’re a fire risk.’ They just wouldn’t have wanted a disabled person in there.
“Nightclubs, in particular, are about the body beautiful. They want people who are going to dance together, snog together and have lots of drinks.
“What they wouldn’t want, for fear of upsetting the other punters, is someone who doesn’t fit that mould.
“I was in my teens and if you get a spot on the end of your nose you think it’s the end of the world.
“Combine that with having no arms and legs and some idiot telling you you can’t come into a nightclub, it takes an awful lot of personality to overcome those kinds of things.”
Rosie was born with phocomelia, which means she has no arms but two fingers on each shoulder. She also has shortened legs with two small feet carrying a total of 13 toes.
Though her impairment was more severe than other babies affected by the drug, she became resilient thanks to her parents’ love.
Many mums and dads with thalidomide impaired children were encouraged to leave them to be cared for in institutions and “start again”.
Rosie’s mother and her father, Denis, considered taking her to a local orphanage.
“But they only got as far as the gates before turning back,” she says, “and that was the luckiest day of my life.
“You’d have to be naive not to know what happened in homes for children and orphanages, the amount of abuse that a lot of people experienced in such places.
“Thalidomide-impaired people I’ve spoken to in these institutions lacked that support and contact from another human being. They described them as cold and unloving.”
But even outside the institutions, many thalidomide survivors have struggled without the support which Rosie enjoyed.
“They haven’t been able to cope with being disabled,” she says. “Some have turned to drink, some to drugs, while others have had difficulty forming relationships.”
Rosie was fortunate. Her parents didn’t just keep her, they adored her.
Crucially they refused to hide their daughter. But that didn’t diminish the trauma her mother felt.
She’d taken thalidomide for just two weeks to deal with her asthma, high blood pressure, a lack of sleep and morning sickness.
Mena realised the drug was the cause of her daughter’s disabilities and, like most mothers in her situation, was haunted by the guilt.
“I remember my mum had seen a couple of things in a shop window which might suit me,” she says, “but when we went in the owner of the shop came over screaming at us: ‘get out of the shop, your pram is ruining my new carpet!’
“And I said: ‘This isn’t a pram, this is my wheelchair, it’s my way of getting around’. But she wasn’t having it, so I said: ‘Well, we were going to buy something but you can stick it now.’
“Both my mum and I went outside and burst into tears. Mine were tears of anger but hers were tears of heartbreak. She felt bad because I was being hurt.”
But the family also knew that Rosie was lucky to be alive. Some of the most deformed babies born in the UK were “not allowed to live.”
Doctors suffocated them or left them in a cold room shortly after delivery.
Of those allowed to live, half didn’t survive a year.