Last November in the Columba Club in Blantyre I was about to take my seat on stage when I was asked to speak to someone in the crowd.
I was introduced to Gerry Cleary, a 51-year-old Celtic supporter from East Kilbride. Gerry, who is a wheelchair user, told me that he was a victim of the notorious drug Thalidomide.
Gerry’s ears turned to radar mode when I mentioned the trade name of the German-made drug. I then told him my own story, which entwined with his. In the six degrees of separation, big pharma had cut that down considerably.
When I told him that my mother was almost prescribed “Distaval” – (the name that Thalidomide – also known by in Britain) Gerry instantly realised that there was a connection between us.
In the chance and timing that controls all of us we both understood that we could have been in each other’s shoes.
Sitting in the foyer of a Glasgow hotel a few days later with Gerry and his 24-year-old son Declan, Gerry took me on his journey, and one that combined the life he was born into and one of his biggest loves – Celtic. Among the experiences he described to us was his first use of a wheelchair – being pushed around Seville in 2003 by his mates.
He also told me about a campaign he is involved in which aims to raise awareness and build signatures on an e-petition in pursuit of justice.
Gerry told me that there is a website called www.Showyourhand.org set up by those affected by the condition.
“There is an e-petition which hopefully we can encourage as many people as possible to support,” Gerry said.
“We can then present it to the German government and the company responsible for the Thalidomide tragedy, Chemie Grunenthal, which was one of the biggest pharmaceutical disasters in modern times.
“Ultimately we want a sincere apology from Chemie Grunenthal and to finally bring them to justice. We also believe that they should compensate Thalidomiders worldwide.”
I am of the Thalidomide generation and growing up seeing the children like Gerry on TV, struggling with what life had given them, probably introduced me to concepts like justice.
My mother was utterly engaged and enraged about the issue. Looking back, I think it was the first time I sensed that there could be reasons to be angry with the world.
Speaking to Gerry took me back to my own childhood and my family’s story. My mother had a difficult pregnancy with me, to say the least. Most of the nine months saw her confined to a wheelchair.
We were both lucky to emerge from the smashed up vehicle that had taken her husband, my father.
She only learned she was pregnant in the hospital after she had regained consciousness.
As my mother dealt with both bereavement and pregnancy, another pregnant woman she knew was given medication by her doctor to help her sleep, and so my mother asked her own doctor if she could have some too. She told him that she couldn’t sleep and that she had heard of a tablet that was safe for pregnant women to take.
Thankfully, the attending medic was very old school.
I still have fond memories of Doctor O’Flaherty, a Cork man, tending me for some minor ailment of the kind that youngsters are always picking up. Of course he knew my back story in a way that I didn’t until adulthood.
“A fine broth of a boy,” was his medical opinion as I recall.
In the 1960s, the GP practice he was a key part of wasn’t prone to prescribing the wonder drugs of the day. In those days big pharma was telling doctors that their clinically proven miracles would turn any town in the land into a Happy Valium. The Cork man and his local protégés demurred. The world now knows that those drugs only led to a valley of tears.
My mother later told me, when I was an adult, that she had once gone to the Cork man when she was suffering from depression. I was a toddler at the time and herself was attempting to come to terms with the shitty hand that life had dealt her.
“Depressed are you Bridget? Ah well, go and talk to your sister Mary, that’s what I do when I’m down. She’d cheer anyone up.”
My mother left without a prescription for anything.
Similarly, when she had asked for something to help her get to sleep when she was carrying me, the man from the Rebel County wouldn’t hear of it.
There, but by the grace of Doctor O’Flaherty, I would be in Gerry Cleary’s place now.
His mother wasn’t so lucky and neither were 467 kids across the UK, 55 of them in Scotland alone. This group of people, all around 50 years of age are told that they have the bodies of 70 year olds.
The UK distributers, Distillers, paid compensation in 1973, but the German manufacturers who passed the drug on as safe for pregnant women have never paid compensation to anyone outside of Germany.
Thalidomide victims and their families have spent decades seeking justice and fighting for the truth and that battle continues today, all the way up to the German government.
“If it wasn’t for the Sunday Times and a guy called Harold Evans in particular, the scandal would have been hushed up,” Gerry told me. “When the tragedy occurred, both the British and German governments were embarrassed as the drug hadn’t been tested properly.
“We want two things from the German government: firstly, they brought out a statute in German law which protected Chemie Grunenthal from being sued and we feel they should change that. Following that, we want them to put some pressure on the company to do the right thing and compensate those affected. Remember, it’s not just us as individuals who were affected, all our families were affected as well.”
Gerry is as Celtic as they come and the Celtic family have turned up for him in the past when he’s asked for support.
“Celtic Quick News ran an article after I contacted Paul Brennan and I couldn’t believe the support from the fans,” he explained. “Our site had over 1,000 extra ‘hands’ on the wall within 48 hours – mainly green I might add – CQN had set the ball rolling.
“The club itself has been fantastic, allowing me interviews on both Celtic TV and in the Celtic View. The Thalidomiders are really appreciative of this and I think we’ve added a few new supporters into the bargain!
“I would like to thank all of the fans for their support. This shows what our club is all about. I’ve followed Celtic all of my life, all over Europe, and being part of the Celtic family has helped me greatly as an individual.”
If I was in Gerry Cleary’s place I know that this guy would fight like a terrier for me.
I very rarely ask people to do stuff on here, but if you don’t feel outrage at this crime then we’re not on the same page dear reader.
However if, like me, you’re very angry about this then please go to here and do all that you can to help.