Dr Turner’s Dilemma: Reflections of a Thalidomide Survivor and a Doctor’s Wife

By Catherine Diwaker

I have read, and loved, all of Jennifer Worth’s books, my favourite actually being ‘In the Midst of Life.’ So when ‘Call The Midwife’ was televised it became our family’s regular Sunday evening viewing. A drama that my husband, daughters and I could watch and enjoy together. We learnt from Sister Julienne’s wisdom, laughed at Sister Monica Joan’s antics and quoted Chummy’s hilarious lines. We involved ourselves in the romances and the everyday ups and downs of Poplar life. And we grew to love these characters. So it was that I remember watching the last episode of Series Four about a young mother, overwhelmed and hospitalised by morning sickness, who is prescribed a new drug, thalidomide. With no prior warning, and knowing exactly what that prescription would mean for her unborn baby, I felt a wave of grief, panic and horror flood over me. But the emotion that gripped me most was sorrow – sorrow about what the consequences of this decision, to prescribe thalidomide, would do to the lovely Dr Turner? This kind, hard-working family doctor who put himself out and worked tirelessly for his patients. This stalwart and respected member of the community whose character we had grown to love. What would it do to him?

Here was a young doctor affected by a war that had not been over for long. A war that had caused hardship and sadness and circumstances that were better forgotten. He is an optimist, a dreamer, an idealist. A man with a vocation who wants to build a better future for his patients. This is the 1960s. The NHS has been established, antibiotics are available and tackling many feared illnesses, attitudes to contraception are changing and the pill is available and becoming more widely accepted. Dr Turner, and many others like him, are dreaming of a better future – and then the devastation of thalidomide hits.

I was born in a small village in the middle of the New Forest in June 1962. My mother had been born nearby, as was her father before that. Everyone knew everyone else and everyone knew everyone else’s business. This was both a good thing and a difficult thing; people looked out for and helped each other but people also whispered about each other too.

I was the fifth of six children born to a couple who had already faced their fair share of hardships. Maybe that’s why they both fought so hard for me. I always knew how precious I was to them and was aware of the total unconditional love they felt for me and the pride that they had in me. Born in the small cottage hospital on the outskirts of the village, I was taken away from my mother immediately after birth. My father was called and instructed to come to the hospital urgently. When he arrived, he and my mother were told that I had been born with very small arms, that there, “Were places for children like this” and that they should send me away. My parents refused and insisted on seeing me. Holding me in her arms, my mother recalled, “I looked into your eyes and knew that you were mine and that I was taking you home.”

My birth caused quite a stir in the village. Doctors came out from Southampton, 20 miles away, to view and examine this ‘interesting medical anomaly’ and word spread round the village of my arrival. So many times was I woken from sleep during the first few days of my life, to be prodded and examined and photographed, for medical interest and general curiosity, that I developed a shrill scream. My parents were told that I was brain damaged and would never even sit up, let alone walk, talk or make anything of my life. Fortunately for me, my parents were experienced parents and believed that if they could just get me home and give me some peace and quiet that I would blossom. Which, under their love and protection, I did.

I should never really have been affected by thalidomide. By the time my Mother was prescribed the drug, late in 1961, the drug company, the medical profession and the government all knew what this drug could do. Her prescription itself was a chance prescription.

My brother Richard, at the age of two, had contracted meningitis and had been admitted to hospital in Southampton. My Mother, leaving my two older brothers and sister in the charge of my father, stayed with him day and night for three days. Having lost one child to illness, (one of my older sisters had died as a result of a trial drug being used for Whooping Cough ten years earlier) she was not going to lose another. When she took Richard to the GP for a post-admission check up a few days after his discharge from hospital, the GP noticed that my mother looked very tired and prescribed her something to help her sleep. I don’t think she even knew that she was pregnant at this stage. (I have recently learnt that days 24/26 of pregnancy is the period when thalidomide affects upper limb development and causes deformities to the foetus’s arms and hands.) My mother had had a real distrust of medicines since my sister’s death so, not wishing really to take any medicine at all, she took only five tablets – two and a half doses. “They didn’t agree with me and made me feel awful,” she told me, “So I only took one tablet on the third night and then threw the bottle up on to the top of the wardrobe.”

The irony of it was that had our family doctor not been away on holiday at the time, thalidomide would never have been prescribed for her. Our village GP, who had known our family for years, was stunned and shocked by my birth. He was a well-read man who kept up to date with all the recent research into treatments and drugs and he had known what thalidomide was capable of for months. He was so troubled by my birth that he questioned my mother about any drugs or treatments that she may have used during her pregnancy and when she said the name ‘Distaval’ (the brand name for thalidomide in the UK) he looked like a broken man. My mother remembers him shaking his head and muttering, “But I would never have prescribed that.” Seeing the effect that this information had on this friend and champion of the family she added,“It wasn’t you who prescribed it. It was the locum doctor who was here when you were away. I still have the bottle on the top of my wardrobe.” The doctor’s face remained unchanged. He remained a broken man. This had happened on his watch and at his practice.

Some of my earliest memories involve walking to the village with my mother, holding onto, or riding on the bottom of, my younger sister’s pram. We visited the baker’s and the butcher’s and the grocer’s shops daily. But we also visited the baby clinic to have my sister weighed and to collect her rosehip syrup and vitamin drops. Sometimes, if she or I were to have our immunisations or other check ups, we would see our GP. I remember him as being a quiet and serious man who often watched me closely and I remember feeling that he didn’t like me very much. Years later, I commented on this to my mother and she told me, “Oh no darling. It wasn’t that he didn’t like you. He just felt guilty every time he saw you, that a drug that was meant to do so much good could damage you like that. And he had been unable to prevent it.”

Stephen McGann, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the Thalidomide Society AGM last year, plays his role as Dr Turner so well. You see his caring and gentleness alongside his professionalism when Susan is born. Realising that there is life, and that Susan is going to fight to live that life, he stays true to the oath he has taken to preserve life and give her the best chance he can. Later, as he realises the enormity of the effects of this ‘wonder drug,’ you can also see his pain, his feelings of shock and horror and the sickness and guilt that he feels for prescribing it. You see his dream of making things better for his patients shattered.

I know that many of us, myself included, have had awful experiences with doctors in the past. Those who have treated us like a medical problem rather than a human being. Those who have not listened to us or made us feel valued. Those who have strapped us into uncomfortable limbs or equipment because they ‘know best’, or carried out unnecessary operations in the name of research. But there are many, many doctors out there who have trained in medicine because it is a vocation to them. They want to make people better. They want to make their lives better for their patients and will do everything in their power to achieve this – my husband being one of them. They work long, long hours, they listen, they go the extra mile, they give of themselves, they cancel holidays to be there for their patients and they care deeply. Sometimes things happen – and doctors carry the weight of those things around with them. They are human. And when I see Dr Turner with his head in his hands, or remember the sad look in my childhood GP’s eyes, it makes me ponder how many other GPs and doctors lived with similar guilt and sadness for the rest of their lives?

Heidi Thomas and the Call the Midwife team have done an amazing job in telling the story of the Thalidomide babies and the effect that their births had on their families and their communities. We were born at a time when people still believed the ancient myth that disability was the result of sin. That disability could be caught like a disease. That children like us should be hidden from view. Hence I, and many others, experienced new playmates on the beach being plucked away from us, hushed warnings being spat in their ears about how ‘we need to keep away.’ Luckily for many of us, our parents didn’t listen to these things. They took us home and fought for us to take our place in society. They didn’t hide us away but thrust us out into the world to be seen. They encouraged us to achieve our potential and then when we did they showered us with pride and unconditional love. The actress who played Susan’s mother did so with such tenderness it made me weep; the way she braced herself to look at her baby and then whispered, “ Oh love, what a mess…’ still makes me tearful when I think of it. You just know that here is a mother who is going to love and protect her child no matter what. She is going to make good out of an awful situation, just as my parents, and many of the parents of thalidomide children, did and we are still doing.

Watching Susan’s birth on television and ‘meeting’ baby Susan at the AGM was very emotional. It made me reflect on how I would have felt if that had been my baby. It made me reflect on my mother’s emotions, her wonderful love for me and the guilt that she lived with. It made me reflect on the effect our births had on our siblings, our families and our communities. And it made me reflect on the lessons that have been learned from thalidomide and the good that has come from it: safety laws on drugs, development of artificial limbs, disability rights, Motability schemes, home adaptations, access laws and a greater understanding of disability as a whole.

Drama is an incredible medium for educating the public about many subjects. I think that the ‘Call the Midwife’ team have been able to show the human cost of the thalidomide scandal, the cost not only to those affected physically by the drug but to those mentally scarred by it through no fault of their own. When my parents died my siblings and I cleared their home and shared their furniture and belongings between us. I had always loved a painting of birch trees that had hung over the mantlepiece in the dining room so I put in a request to have it. When I eventually arranged for the painting to be hung on the wall of my own dining room I noticed that the signature on the bottom was that of our family GP. He had always loved the New Forest and had apparently taken up painting in his retirement. Looking at the forest scene, and imagining him taking in the serenity of it in his later years, I pray that, unlike my mother, who felt guilty about the way I was born for the rest of her life, he was able to feel that peace and forgive himself.