Even though thalidomide did not reach American pharmacy shelves, the drug was distributed to as many as 20,000 patients through two clinical trials run by American companies that were testing it for use in the United States.
Now, a group of Americans who say they were affected by the drug are demanding justice and recognition. Here are some of their stories.
Gwen Riechmann, 57, Cincinnati
Ms. Riechmann was born in Cincinnati in May 1962 with shortened arms, missing thumbs and clubbed feet. She is one of a handful of babies whose parents sued her mother’s doctor, Dr. Ray O. Nulsen, as well as Richardson-Merrell, the company that ran a large trial of thalidomide in the United States. Her family, which filed the suit in 1964, later settled with the company. She declined to discuss the terms of the settlement.
Ms. Riechmann was trained as a special-education teacher and taught for years in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where she also led a Girl Scout troop. She moved back to Cincinnati in 2010 to care for her elderly father. In 2016, her customized van broke down and she cannot afford to replace it. Since then, she has had to give up social activities.
Thalidomide was commonly prescribed overseas to treat morning sickness, but Ms. Riechmann said her mother was given the drug because she had a history of miscarriages.
She said she remembered the day a photographer visited to take pictures of her for the lawsuit.
“I was wearing a pair of navy blue shorts and a coordinating yellow and blue striped tank top. It was summer. I can remember my parents being asked to remove my shirt at one point, so that they could get pictures of the arms without the shirt being in the way.”
“Our bodies are breaking down because we are using our joints and parts of our body in ways they weren’t meant to. The human body was not meant to crawl on your knees for 55 years. You learn to walk when you’re a year old, and then you don’t go back to crawling. But I never passed that.”
“There needs to be some type of compensation for all of the victims. Like in the other countries where the thalidomide survivors are asking for apologies from the government, I think we need that here.”
Doug Knight, 58, Waynesille, N.C.
Mr. Knight was born in November 1961 on the Fort Jackson Army base in South Carolina. As he grew up, he said, his parents told him his mother had taken thalidomide. He pursued a career in car and truck racing and is now director of operations at Team Stange Racing, overseeing the stock car division. His radio call name is “Shorthands.”
“When I was born, Mom and Dad were asked, ‘Do you want to keep him?’ And they said, ‘What do you mean?’ They said, ‘Euthanasia.’ And Daddy said, ‘Well, is he breathing?’ The doctor said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Well, he’s going home with us.’ ”
“When my two older brothers would pick on me, I would go and take their bicycles apart. They couldn’t put them back together. So they had to go tell Daddy and make me put those bicycles back together. Daddy would say, ‘Well, what did you do to him this time?’”
“I see what a lot of my brothers and sisters have went through — I call them brothers and sisters because we are brothers and sisters of this drug that made us what we are. And I feel like it needs to be gotten out there. Some of these congressmen and senators that we have now have forgotten about thalidomide.”
Jose Martynov G. Calora, 57, Beaverton, Ore.
Mr. Calora was born in Ithaca, N.Y., where his father was a graduate student in entomology at Cornell University. When he was 3 months old, his family returned to the Philippines. He came back to the United States in 1985, and works for a logistics company. He is married and has two teenage daughters.
He said his mother told him that her doctor gave her thalidomide for morning sickness, but never explained that it was not approved in the United States.
“When I was growing up, I was really the only kid in school who was disabled. I grew up in a small college town and there was no school for disabled kids. Because of all of my experiences, the images in my brain were of normal kids.”
“So I’ve been, I guess, growing up and doing things like a normal kid or a normal person, although I look different and I can sense that people see me differently.”
“In my 50s, I started developing neck, shoulder and lower back pain. I’m undergoing treatments for my back pain right now. My doctor thinks it’s due to excessive wear and tear of my joints.”
“I just want the truth to come out, and for people to be aware of the truth. Right now in the United States, people think that it never happened.”
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