Contergan Woman

I stood behind a woman in line while shopping today who appears to be one of the Contergan babies. She was about my age, and at that time many pregnant women were given Contergan to combat morning sickness.

Turned out that this caused the babies to suffer from phocomelia, which entails the hands (often missing fingers) attached directly to the shoulders. Soon after German doctors determined that 50% of the mothers of the deformed babies had taken Contergan, it was removed from the German market.

She was shorter than I am, her shoulders were at the level of the little payment shelf they have at the cash registers for you to sign your credit card chits on. She had had one item in each hand, and had to lean her body over the counter a shoulder at a time to put the items down.

She worked a wallet out of her coat which was hung on a cord around her neck. The problem is, the hands don't quite meet in the middle. She hunched her shoulders in and used her mouth and chin to get the coins out and get the change back. She was given the bag and tucked it under her chin as she put the coat sleeve (which had, of course, been shortened for her) back on.

I reflected on what a horrible situation the Contergan children are in. Their mothers used a drug which had not undergone proper scientific investigation. I suppose this was one of the reasons we have such stringent rules on developing medicines today, and I rather think that is a good idea.

For the rest of the day I observed what I do and tried to figure out if I could perhaps do it with just one hand, or two that don't meet. I suppose I could clean windows, and read (page turning would be a bitch, though). But cooking - I need both hands to prepare ingredients. Riding a bike, writing at my computer, driving a car - I suppose there are special additions one can get to make these possible.

But still - I am very, very glad that medical testing is rigorous. And wondered what the woman prefers - for people to ignore her, or for them to comment on her situation. I just tried not to stare and not be impatient, but still felt uncomfortable.


GerardM said...

The drug was at the time taken completely of the market. Research was done on the literature what the drug also can be used for. The point of the research was to show that many applications to known drugs are not known.

Currently Contergan is used as a medicine for certain cancers in children and it is used as one of the most potent drugs against lepra (yes, it has a "his" and a "her" variant).

brainerror said...

Hmm, interesting thought (what can one do with just one hand at a time).

Even more, what can't one do with hands but without arms?

...public toilets?

Anonymous said...


Im a Thalidomide baby (45 years old now).
Its really interesting to read your comments about how to act around us.
I suppose its difficult for both sides - for me it can be squirmingly embarrassing having to perform everyday tasks in front of amazed shoppers and I suppose it depends on what side of the bed I get out of in the morning how I react.
Im never nasty to anyone who stares but it does make me uncomfortable.
If somebody asks (quietly) if I need help then thats okay.
I do have a sense of humour and I know that sometimes I look ridiculous wriggling around trying to get my purse out.
However, I have been married twice (both able bodied) have 2 sons and a wicked sense of humour.
It would however be really interesting to see how other people would cope with my type of disability just for the day.
Let me know how you get on - and good luck!