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Cursed by 'miracle drug,' thalidomide victims wait for Canada's apology Add to ...

The day Mercédes Benegbi was born, the priest came into her hospital room and administered the last rites. The little baby with no arms and a stunted shape was not supposed to live.

Mercédes was a thalidomide baby - one of about 125 born with profound deformities in Canada after their mothers were given the "miracle" drug during pregnancy.

The priest's bleak prognosis in a Montreal hospital proved premature: Forty-seven years later, Mercédes Benegbi is still alive. And she and other survivors of thalidomide want Canada to apologize for the nation's most notorious drug disaster.

The Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada, which Ms. Benegbi heads, is calling on Ottawa to follow the lead of Britain, whose government last month offered its "sincere regret and deep sympathy" to that country's more than 460 thalidomide victims.

In Canada, the shock over the thalidomide catastrophe has faded, but the pain for its victims has not. Canada's so-called thalidomide babies are now in late middle age. Their bodies are deteriorating and some rely on the care of aging parents. Their association wants the Canadian government to make amends.

"It's time for Canada to apologize for this tragedy and say sorry for their monumental mistake," Ms. Benegbi says. "The apology is for us and it's for our parents, who felt massacred when they saw their mutilated children enter the world."

The little blond baby given up for dead at Sacré Coeur hospital sits on her living-room couch next to her father, Marco, who lives upstairs. Her mother, Colette, lives in the same triplex. From the day their daughter was born, Marco and Colette cared for and protected their daughter. Marco designed a hockey-type visor to prevent her from harming her face as an infant - without arms, she couldn't break her fall. He carried her in his arms on her first day of school. Colette still peels the potatoes to make her shepherd's pie. They both help her lift heavy grocery bags.

But as Mr. Benegbi ages - he is 85 - both he and his daughter know they face an uncertain future.

"You'll be sad when I go," he says, reaching across the couch to tenderly touch his daughter's shoulder, where a hand with misshapen fingers begins.

"We suffered a lot at first," Mr. Benegbi says. "The pain of having a little child without arms was enormous. I felt rage over that cursed medication. But the Canadian government washed its hands, like Pontius Pilate."

Thalidomide, used to fight nausea and insomnia in pregnant women, became available in Canada in late 1959 without testing by Canadian health officials. It was licensed for prescription use on April 1, 1961. By December that year, thalidomide was pulled off the market in West Germany and Britain as alarms were sounded over severe birth defects: babies born without arms or legs, some with no ears, some with internal organ damage.

Yet thalidomide remained available in Canada for three more months. The United States, meanwhile, never approved the drug at all. Ironically, it was a Canadian-born medical officer, Frances Kelsey, who withstood drug-company pressure to approve it.

Today, some of Canada's "thalidomiders," as they call themselves, live fulfilling lives, with jobs, spouses and children. Most, however, are struggling, according to the victims' group. Ms. Benegbi, who speaks to survivors across Canada, hears heart-rending stories of poverty and isolation. Some children were shunned by their own parents. Four have died in the past six years due to complications from their handicap, leaving 96 Canadian-born survivors.

Their parents, meanwhile, also live with the drug's legacy. Anne Marie Bainbridge, 70, was given thalidomide by her family doctor in Quebec in 1961 when she became nauseous while pregnant with her fourth child.

"Here's something new," the doctor told her. Mrs. Bainbridge took nine pills.

When her daughter was born, the doctor kept Mrs. Bainbridge sedated in hospital for days and refused to let her see the baby. Once she emerged from her fog, they told her not to bother bonding because the child wouldn't live. The baby, named Bernadette, was placed in a care facility for six months, until Mrs. Bainbridge went to get her.

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