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Being Different: A Personal Story of Thalidomide

July 22, 1987|EILEEN CRONIN-NOE | Eileen Cronin-Noe, a graduate student at Howard University, works for a private rehabilitation firm in northern Virginia. This article was originally written for the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — I am the daughter whose presence on the delivery table would have devastated most mothers. Imagine the scenario:

"Mrs. Smith," the doctor says, "you have a baby girl."

"Is she pretty?" Mrs. Smith asks. "Can I hold her?"

The doctor stammers, "Mrs. Smith, your baby is missing most of her legs."

The doctor gives the mother a tiny infant whose right leg is missing from a point just above the place where a knee might have been and whose left leg has a knee with only a small, underdeveloped portion of a lower calf extending from it.

This is what my body resembled at birth--and still does. Yet I would not choose any other life.

My story begins between the 26th and 60th day after I was conceived. On approximately the 28th day, we develop limb buds; this was true in my case. Usually the entire limb is developed by the 56th day; in my case, the development was hindered. The agent that caused this was most likely Thalidomide.

Thalidomide was a drug used by thousands of pregnant women in Europe as a sedative. It was banned in the United States, but did make its way into this country through one company. About 20 Thalidomide cases were reported in the United States, according to a London Times task force, and more than 8,000 cases in Europe. The drug was withdrawn from the world market in 1962.

The results of this chemical have been described as "monstrosities." And there were monumental lawsuits brought by parents. In addition, a number of abortions were also performed on women who were informed of the possibilities.

My mother vaguely remembers being given a drug while on a trip to Germany because she was experiencing nausea and restlessness from her pregnancy. For my parents, abortion was not an option, even had they been aware of my condition. They believe that it was God's decision, and they were content with that decision. For this same reason, they did not pursue any legal action. For them, a lawsuit never would have addressed the issue.

Their belief has led me to accept--even prefer--things for what they are. Many people may find this difficult to believe. They feel lucky that amniocentesis is available to screen out babies born with less severe deformities than mine. The thought frightens me.

Amniocentesis could never have told my mother that I would have artistic talent, a high intellectual capacity, a sharp wit and an outgoing personality. The last thing amniocentesis would tell her is that I could be physically attractive.

My point is that we demean the value of an individual's worth by adhering to a medical label such as "disabled." What is worse, most medical professionals aren't even aware of the attitude they may convey to prospective parents--that a disabled life is not worth living.

Most people do not believe me when the subject comes up and I tell them that I have artificial limbs. Unless I were to wear miniskirts, which I don't, my physical differences would not be apparent. I limp, but not as much as some people think I should.

I take off my legs to go swimming. On the surface, I suddenly appear very disabled, but I can actually swim better than most people. I have learned to live with this frequent dissonance between the image I have of myself and the one that others reflect back to me. My task has been to integrate these images.

In kindergarten I asked for the first time, "Why don't I have legs?"

"Because God looked for someone to love extra special. He chose you to be that person and to carry the cross," one nun explained. But sometimes I suspected that other people thought I must have done something very wicked in a past life to receive such a severe punishment.

What I feel I needed to hear again and again in my childhood is something like, "You're different. We're not sure why. There isn't anything we can do about it. We love you very much, and we're glad that you're here."

Normal Life

To help me lead a normal life, my parents taught me never to underestimate my capabilities. They sent me to the same schools as my 10 brothers and sisters, expected me to fulfill the same responsibilities and to lead a similar life.

At the same time that I competed with other children in school, sports and social situations, my parents also tried to tell me about my limitations. Their statements were blasphemy to my ears. I begged them to let me play softball and take ballet lessons. Usually after a reasonable trial period, I would find some excuse to quit.

I quit ballet after two years to free up my schedule for softball, and also because ballet was for sissies. Two years later, I quit softball because I was going to high school, and I heard that high school boys did not like girls who played softball.

Being different was an idea that never did quite settle into my mind.

Once when I asked my mother why some boys were taunting me about my legs, her eyes filled with tears. "You know I would give you my legs, if I could," she said.

I walked away feeling intensely guilty.

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