Labour of Love

by Katie Cincotta

“When our first two daughters were born they said ‘it’s a girl’ but with Lyn there was just silence, this deafening silence. Nobody said anything and I knew it wasn’t good.” Wendy Rowe

Most new parents whinge about sleepless nights, dreaming of the day their child will eventually sleep through the night. Wendy and Ian Rowe haven’t had a full night’s sleep for the last 50 years.

Wendy wakes two to three times a night to attend to their third daughter Lyn, who was born without arms or legs.

The family from Melbourne’s eastern suburbs were dealt a cruel blow by the drug Thalidomide, which Wendy took for morning sickness during her pregnancy in 1961. Her GP had given her a sample pack, unaware that the sedative caused birth defects.

With no ultrasound in the 60s, it wasn’t until Lyn was born that her parents discovered the terrible damage inflicted upon their baby, and more than 10,000 children in 46 countries.

“When our first two daughters were born they said ‘it’s a girl’ but with Lyn there was just silence, this deafening silence. Nobody said anything and I knew it wasn’t good.”

The doctor who delivered her — Ron Dickinson — is still alive and gets emotional when recalling the day he delivered one of the world’s most profoundly affected Thalidomiders.

Wendy looks sombre when she recounts how the hospital never brought Lyn in to her for nursing or cuddles, and that she didn’t get to see her up close for three days.

“That was a jelly-legs shock. One of the doctors at the hospital said you should put her in a home because she’ll die in six months. But I looked at her with that cute little face and we knew we were going to love and care for her right from the beginning.”

Ian found the event so distressing he has little memory of the first few days. What he does remember is going camping at Mt Beauty with Wendy a week after Lyn was born to discuss the profound changes ahead for them as a family.

“It was hard to dress her and we didn’t have disposable nappies then. My neighbour next door made us some sleeping bags that went over her shoulder and zipped up at the front, so we started slow and learnt as we went along,” says Wendy.

Over the years, the family pulled together with their trademark humour, scrounging money for an annual camping holiday to Merimbula where Lyn was carried onto the sand in a cricket bag.

“We put her on a surfboard and nearly lost her a few times in the current,” laughs Wendy.

In the face of cruel stares and jibes, Lyn’s sisters were fiercely protective of their disabled sibling. When an ‘obnoxious child’ chased them around the supermarket poking fun at the little torso in the trolley, older sister Alison sprang to Lyn’s defence: ‘If you don’t go away, my Dad is going to cut off your arms and legs, just like he did to her.’

It takes a lot to make this cheerful family furious but when German drug company Grunenthal recently issued a statement for the first time, telling the thousands of thalidomide victims they had been in ‘silent shock’ for 50 years, the Rowes were incredulous.

“Shock is having your precious child born without arms and legs. It’s accepting that your child is not going to have that life that you wanted for her,” Wendy told a press conference.

“Our family couldn’t have gone into silent shock. We had to get up and face each day every day and cope with the incredible damage Grunenthal had done to Lyn and our family,” says Wendy.

The pathetic apology was issued at the unveiling of a bronze memorial of a limbless child in the town of Stolberg.

“They’re sick people, and they don’t have any feelings,” says Lyn.

“They are so insensitive, they’ve got no idea. To think they chose an event commemorating thalidomiders to make an offensive statement is hard to believe,” says Wendy.

In his book about the thalidomide scandal, Silent Shock, Melbourne lawyer and former journalist Michael Magazanik reveals explosive evidence from a company insider at British firm Distillers that the Australian managers that sold thalidomide to pregnant women in the 1950s and ‘60s covered up concerns it was causing birth defects — leaving the lethal drug on the market for five months to kill and deform thousands of babies.

In 2014, the Victorian Supreme Court signed off on a $89 million class action settlement for thalidomide victims in Australia and New Zealand — which was spearheaded by Lyn Rowe and her legal teams, Slater & Gordon and Gordon Legal.

Rather than become bitter and despondent, Lyn has risen to the challenges of her imperfect body with a ‘never give up, always have a go’ life philosophy.

She’s worked for Scope since she was 17 and as an educator, speaking to children at schools and medical staff at hospitals about what she’s achieved.

“I talk about my life story, and what I can do. I like educating the public, to show them that having a disability still means you can do anything, but just in a different way. Nobody would know if I wasn’t prepared to tell the story.”

Lyn loves the curiosity of the kids who always ask her the same question: ‘Miss, how do you go to the loo?’

She may not be able to dress or cook for herself, but Lyn still has some pretty impressive talents for a woman with no limbs; she can feed herself, use a computer, apply her own eye shadow, propagate seeds to sell at the market, and as a child she even completed her 25-metre swimming certificate, propelling her body through the water on her back.

“If you find yourself in a very difficult situation, there’s always a way around. The key is to be treated normally, not with kid gloves,” she says.

Lyn in her new hi tech home with automated lights

As the lead plaintiff in a landmark class action by Slater & Gordon and Gordon Legal, Lyn won a multi-million dollar payout in 2012 from Diageo who owns the drug distributor Distillers, which is a huge relief to her ageing parents who had no money to repair their rundown weatherboard.

“The money hasn’t changed me at all. I’m still working. It just means my family doesn’t have to worry about what happens to me in the future. My sisters are very relieved too. They kept saying they were going to put me in the shed — but it’s a big shed,” she jokes.

Now the family have a new Volkswagen Caddy to drive Lyn around in, a hi-tech $23,000 wheelchair which lets her control her direction, speed and height with the mere tilt of her head, and carers who help with showering, shopping and ‘date nights’ so Wendy and Ian can go to dinner or a movie.

And thanks to $200,000 donated by the Victorian business community, the Rowes have demolished their rickety old house, with its narrow hallways and doors, and replaced it with state-of-the-art showpiece built by Watersun Homes, rigged up with automated lights that turn on when Lyn wheels in, a body hoist that runs through her rooms and a backyard that she can move through.

The tradies who built it in 18 weeks worked for nothing. Loyal neighbours took shifts to feed the volunteers, including landscapers who came down from Shepparton and left their car headlights on through the night to finish the job.

Pride of place in the new home are the hundreds of bears that Lyn has been collecting since she was a girl, including a teddy given to her by her parents when she was born.

Those beautiful soft toys all have their arms and legs in place, but what they’re missing is something Lyn has in spades — a cheeky, confident personality that just radiates joy.

Each time she buys a precious new bear to add to the shelf, she grins at the sales assistant and says ‘I bet this one will cost me an arm and a leg.”

Lyn and I in with her beloved teddy collection

That wonderful sense of humour, which has carried the bubbly brunette and her family through difficult times, is something no drug could ever take away.

Thalidomide was officially sold in Australia under various brand names in 1960 and 1961.

For more on the men behind the thalidomide scandal this family’s long road to justice, read Silent Shock by Michael Magazanik.

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