pregnancy

Lisa's mum took two pills when she was pregnant. Her daughter was left disabled for life.

It took two pills to shape Lisa McManus’ life. A life as a thalidomide survivor, deformed by a drug her mother took while pregnant, unaware of the damage it could do to her unborn daughter.

Lisa, 56, is one of thousands of “thalidomide babies” born in the late 1950s and early 1960s after pregnant women all over the world were prescribed the “safe” drug for morning sickness. She was born with severely malformed arms and hands – a sight which caused the midwife assisting at her delivery to scream and flee the room in tears – before her concerned mother Beryl was wheeled out of the ward without her newborn.

Lisa was born with only three fingers on each hand and no thumbs. Image: ABC.

It would have taken little more than a government health warning to avoid the physical deformity and years of emotional scarring Lisa has lived for 56 years.

Now, on Monday night's episode of Australian Story, Lisa speaks of her dedication to seeking justice for all thalidomide survivors and their parents.

Born in March 1963, Lisa McManus is one of Australia’s youngest survivors, and suspects her fate would have been different had the government chosen to act.

Following reports of multiple babies born with severe deformities and internal abnormalities, in 1961, Distillers, the Australian pharmaceutical company that sold the drug, alerted the Commonwealth Health Department of the drug's risk to pregnant women, advising it would no longer sell it.

However, then-Health Minister Harrie Wade rejected advice to issue public warnings.

Lisa's mother had taken only two tablets for anxiety, but it was enough to change their lives forever.

In the 1970s, Lisa's parents joined a legal action against Distillers along with about 40 other Australian families. The case settled, and the families were offered a payout.

Lacking resources to fight further, families accepted the small sum of money, and signed away their future legal rights against the company.

"Five years I've been knocking on the doors of the government saying, 'this is us; we're not the thalidomide babies anymore, we're thalidomide adults'," Lisa tells Australian Story.

"This is us and we need help."

With her husband by her side, tireless efforts by Lisa have culminated in a Senate Inquiry to investigate the government's response to thalidomide survivors, who are still struggling with complex and health problems in their later years.

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"The very, very limited things that we were able to do with our disabilities as we were growing, we're losing," Lisa says.

"The fear of what will come tomorrow for us is overwhelming."

In addition to their increasing medical concerns, the sums their families were offered in the 1970s settlement are all dried up.

This, coupled with the fact that her condition could have been avoided, fuels Lisa's passion to continue fighting.

Having found ageing documents containing what would have been, for her, life-changing warnings, Lisa says the fact that no action was taken is "inexcusable".

A handwritten note from Harrie Wade that no response was required the source of frustration and heartbreak in the face of a government that failed her.

"To think that it could have been prevented is just inexcusable," Lisa says.

"It's abhorrent to think that a man in an ivory tower in parliament did nothing. These little babies were being born without legs and without arms and without hearing, and he was doing nothing.

"He was being warned and he did nothing."

Furthermore, while governments around the world have acknowledged their role in the pharmaceutical disaster, the Australian government has never officially recognised its responsibility.

Victims in the UK, Canada and Germany have received additional funding and formal apologies, while Lisa and her fellow survivors have never been acknowledged, nor  eligible to take part in the class action led by lawyer Peter Gordon in 2011.

To support her battle, Lisa has founded a lobby group, Thalidomide Group Australia, and their demands are as follows: an apology, a one-off compensation payment of up to $500,000 for each survivor, ongoing pensions, and access to government-funded medical services to assist survivors with escalating medical costs.

Her goal is to be able to achieve all this while her 92-year-old mother Beryl is still alive - a bid to convince her mother, once and for all, that she is not to blame for Lisa's life-long disability.

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