Roger Cushnie grew up with missing and bent fingers and toes, a lifelong burden whose cause remained a mystery to him. "I was born like this," he would tell people who asked.
Stares from strangers were the unwelcome companions of his life. When Mr. Cushnie asked his mother about his condition as a child, she told him she had suffered an "accident" while she was pregnant.
It is only now, at the age of 54, that Mr. Cushnie has learned for the first time that his birth defects had a cause, and that they were man-made. After tracking down his childhood medical records, the Winnipeg resident was recognized last month as a victim of thalidomide, a revelation that means Canada's most notorious drug scandal left even more victims in its wake than previously known.
Ottawa announced a $180-million settlement last year to support nearly 100 thalidomide survivors who were formally accounted for at the time. The government also opened the door to new claims from Canadians who could provide proof their mothers had taken the drug – a challenge after 50 years, during which records have become difficult to find or simply vanished.
So far, the administrator of Ottawa's thalidomide payments has recognized 15 new survivors of about 80 claimants so far, and more could emerge after applications close on Tuesday. A half-century later, the scandal continues to turn up victims.
"I never had a clue. Now, at least I know what happened to me," said Mr. Cushnie, one of the 15. "I could have gone to my grave without ever knowing."
Thalidomide had been approved by federal health officials in 1961 as supposedly safe "wonder" drug for pregnant women suffering from morning sickness. But in one of the worst medical disasters of all time, the German-made drug left a trail of rare birth defects such as shortened and missing limbs in thousands of babies worldwide.
Mr. Cushnie and the others brings the number of recognized survivors of Canada's thalidomide scandal to 112. Originally, Ottawa recognized all 95 members of the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada plus three non-members. One victim has since died.
Mr. Cushnie says he had been questioned by strangers about a possible link between his deformities and thalidomide before, but he didn't explore the idea. Then, last year, while TVAC was leading a high-profile campaign to secure federal compensation, Mr. Cushnie decided to try to find out the truth.
He sent off a request for his medical records and, once he got them, saw the word thalidomide written in black and white.
According to Mr. Cushnie's account of the records, right after he was born at a Winnipeg hospital in 1962, doctors asked his mother if she had taken thalidomide. She said no. But a few months later, on a return visit, Mr. Cushnie's grandmother told doctors that her daughter had, in fact, taken the morning-sickness drug. Then, on a hospital visit when Mr. Cushnie was a year old, his mother admitted it to doctors, according to the health records.
"No one in my family ever said anything to me about it. Everybody just kept quiet," Mr. Cushnie said. At the time, many women felt guilty for having taken the medication even though they had been simply following the advice of their doctors. "I can imagine how my mother felt," Mr. Cushnie said.
Susan Nixon, 54, of Montreal, has also been recognized as a thalidomide survivor by Crawford & Co., the administrator of the government's thalidomide program. Ms. Nixon was born with a crooked forearm and only three fingers. Though her birth records had been destroyed, a doctor in the 1990s signed a letter saying it was "highly likely" Ms. Nixon's malformation was linked to the hazardous drug.
Ms. Nixon's claim was accepted by Crawford in March. "After fighting all these years, I've finally won," Ms. Nixon said. When she got her acceptance letter, she read it over and over. "I couldn't believe it. My struggle was finally over."
Canadians recognized as survivors of thalidomide received an immediate one-time payment of $125,000, and have started receiving annual pensions ranging from $25,000 to $75,000 depending on their degree of disability. About three in four survivors fall into the $75,000 category.
For every new recipient such as Mr. Cushnie or Ms. Nixon, there are many more like Domenica Troianelli, who was born in Montreal 55 years ago but is struggling to provide enough evidence linking her physical malformations to thalidomide.
Ms. Troianelli was born with misshapen feet, missing kneecaps and improperly formed hips, and underwent 13 operations. Her health has deteriorated in the past year and she now relies on a wheelchair or walker.
But her mother's medical and pharmacy records of the day are long gone, and her doctor from that era passed away 10 years ago. If medical records are unavailable, Crawford is accepting a sworn affidavit from a medical professional directly involved in the event.
"Health Canada is asking me for something that is impossible to get. We're talking 55 years ago. I think they have to be realistic," Ms. Troianelli says, who now lives in Brampton, Ont. She has supplied her own medical records as well as a letter from her current family physician, and is anxiously waiting for Crawford's answer. "I don't know what more I can do."
Crawford set up criteria for determining each case because some deformities resemble those associated with thalidomide, but could be unrelated to the drug. "Each year, a certain number of children are born with spontaneous or otherwise unaccountable malformations similar to those caused by thalidomide," Crawford says on its website.
Thalidomide was available in sample form in Canada in July, 1959, and, unlike the United States, Ottawa approved the drug for prescription use in 1961. Contributing to the scandal in Canada was the fact that government officials allowed thalidomide to remain available until March, 1962, three months after authorities in the United Kingdom and Germany took it off their shelves because of its link to birth defects.
The review of new claims is part of what Ottawa terms its long-term commitment to caring for survivors of the tragedy.
"The government of Canada is committed to contributing to the ongoing needs of Canadian thalidomide survivors for the remainder of their lives so that they may age with dignity," Health Canada said in a statement to The Globe and Mail last week. "This includes providing an opportunity and a process to assess unconfirmed individuals, to determine if they are eligible for financial support."