the 50-year-late apology

It was a news story that I could not ignore, my tenuous but very personal connection tugging me back to it. A drug and its terrible history. It is no wonder I am wary of papa pharma and don’t even like to take tylenol….

Any woman who has been pregnant knows how draining morning sickness can be, and can attest that it was surely named by one (a man?) who never experienced that nausea, for it often lasts long past morning, often all day long.

In the late 50’s and early 60’s it seems we (and especially women) had a blind trust of sorts in those who took the oath of “do no harm,” a submissive muting of our own instinct and intelligence. Women smoked, and drank, and took medications that were prescribed to them without question, not stopping any of these things when pregnant or nursing. The women are not to blame. They believed what they were told, that it was safe.

This from one of their ads, whose headline read “Today’s sedative and tonight’s hypnotic.”

No, it was not the sleep-deprived pregnant women who were to blame, Grünenthal was-the company which funded the research of the former Nazi physician/researcher who invented the magic pill, thalidomide, which they aggressively marketed as one that would do away with those pesky symptoms of pregnancy, ensure a good night’s rest. Instead it caused physical malformations in thousands of infants, broke the hearts of thousands of families.

Today the company offered up a formal apology, some 50 years late, to their drug’s victims and their families. In an insulting statement, the company’s CEO offered “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us.” Shock indeed.

The New York Times writes that there are 26 known American thalidomide victims, others claim fewer and others that there are thousands whose deformities were misdiagnosed. Even one is too many.

I know one of these. Ironically enough at the time we were close he was also friends with a descendent of the founder of the very pharmaceutical company that lobbied hard for the drug’s approval here in the U.S. and embarked upon a “program,” which my friend’s mother may well have been a part of, for its testing. The link between the two is one I discovered many years later.

I do not know how his mother came to take the drug, where she got the pills…from a relative? A concerned friend?  From her doctor? While the drug was not approved in the U.S. it was often available via Europe or Canada or under clinical trials which were hardly clinical at all. What is certain is that she took it with the unassailably pure intent of keeping her body safe for her unborn child, while in effect it harmed him instead, one arm malformed whose fingers were rendered basically of no use to him, not to tie his shoes, not to scratch an itch, not to feel the way they might slip through the hair of a loved one or point at a beautiful sunset.

He was fortunate, relatively speaking. He was cool and nonchalant in the way he tucked his hand in his pocket where it remained unnoticed by most. His strength and positive attitude gifted to him by his mother, the very one whose naive trust in the little pill she took brought about his disability. She loved him fiercely and refused to coddle him.

His is one story, but it is the one I know, and he is surely one of the bravest people I have encountered, overcoming his disability and through sheer will and determination crafting from not his disability but his abilities a life and a brilliant career as a scientist, a physician, a surgeon, a researcher whose work will no doubt help countless others.

So no, a stale apology does not right the terrible wrong done to so many by a company determined to pull a tidy profit rather than ensure the health and safety of its consumers. While this case had ramifications on the way drugs are tested and approved, no doubt preventing many such tragedies, it still left a slew of victims in its wake, for whom a greater compensation, a meaningful and significant act of apology, is no doubt in order.

Think twice, or three times, before you take that little pill which washes away your anxiety, your pain.

2 responses to “the 50-year-late apology

  1. In Poland are many people victims of thalidomid,but GRUNENTHAL DOESNT CARE about those people,They think that was not victims of thalidomid in Poland. They will fight with Grunenthal to recceive compensentions which they have to receive from them

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