An inspirational Southport woman who says she is lucky to be alive after being born as ‘a Thalidomide baby’ is today celebrating her 60th birthday.
Teresa Smith was born on 12 October 1960 with short arms and no legs due to her mother being given the controversial drug during pregnancy.
Thalidomide, made by German firm Grunenthal, was sold in the 1950s as a cure for morning sickness, was linked to birth defects including shortened arms and legs, blindness, deafness, heart problems and brain damage and was withdrawn in 1961.
Teresa is one of life’s battlers. She has fought all her life not just for herself, but also for others.
When her Mum, Teresa, died in April, aged 94, she was able to tell her on her deathbed that she was a survivor and that Diagio and Grunenthel, that had made the drug, “hadn’t beaten us”.
Now Teresa is campaigning for a permanent memorial to be created in Liverpool to honour all of the Thalidomide babies who failed to survive childbirth.
‘My Mum’s midwife saved my life at birth’
Teresa was born in what was classed as the Sunshine Houses in Bedford Road in Walton in Liverpool.
Her father was called Joseph and he was from Kirkdale in Liverpool and her mother, Teresa, was from OMeath in County Louth in Ireland. She grew up with her big sister Annette who is 16 months older.
Teresa said: “My mother was looking forward to having her second baby and she opted to have me at home so that she could be close to my sister, who was only a toddler.
“However, the plan of normal pregnancy did not quite aspire to what my mother thought would be a wholesome baby to be delivered.
“I was born with short arms and no legs and later diagnosed as a Thalidomide baby.
“In the 1960s there were no scans so this was a big shock to the midwife and the doctor.
“The midwife was called Rose Clarken. They struck up a friendship because of their Irish ethnicity.
“I later learned by Rose that she suspected something was wrong because she couldn’t feel my legs whilst being examined.
“My mum kept saying ‘why are you keeping checking me’. Rose very politely told her ‘I am just coming for a cup of tea so I may as well check you’. Indeed this midwife Rose saved my life; because the doctor panicked and so she delivered me.
“I was only given three minutes to live and she rushed me to a hospital.
“I was there for three years having been a very sick baby and many operations to follow.”
Teresa was indeed lucky to survive.
The total number of people affected by Thalidomide use during pregnancy is estimated at 10,000, of whom about 40% died around the time of birth.
‘My world turned upside down when I went to school’
Teresa said: “I was in Alder Hey children’s hospital in Liverpool having many operations, which were innovative and experimental.
“My mum wasn’t happy with me staying in so long and she certainly questioned Dr Smithells.
“Indeed with a strong Irish assertiveness she challenged the medical profession; even to the point saying that I was being neglected and she insisted on a diet plan and now all nurses had to follow it.
“He became quite worried because he then said that my cot would be moved into his office.
“Interestingly enough Dr Smithells was also known to have set up the first register for disabled children. He was a leading light into Thalidomide and he corresponded with Dr Lenz in Germany saying that there was a considerable cluster of disabled children being born with similar impairments; indeed Liverpool was very significant in highlighting Thalidomide around the world.
“He also advised the Thalidomide Trust with his skill and knowledge; in my latter years I served on many committees with him. I also discussed many medical cases with him as two professionals together.”
Teresa’s schooldays loomed, and she looked forward to them with much excitement.
She said: “So the big day arrived when I was to go to school! I was excited to go to school as my sister had gone to the local school in Litherland in Liverpool.
“I remember my Mum crying because she did not want me to go. However, I was told at school would be exciting and adventurous.
“Unfortunately, my life truly began because the school was for disabled children. It was called Greenbank and was near Sefton Park in Liverpool.
“Liverpool City Council provided a taxi from my home to school. I had a female carer in the taxi.
“I just remember being dropped off at the door but nobody came to see me take me into class for a long time. I felt truly deserted and lonely and didn’t know what to do as I was just a small five-year-old.
“When I was taken into the class my world was turned upside down to see these disabled children tied into wooden chairs unable to speak and dribbling. Therefore school to me was a shock! I just wanted to go back home and watch Andy Pandy.
“Indeed my learning in that school was atrocious; the only person that taught me was a dinner lady she started to teach me to count the counters.
“There were 12 Thalidomide children in Liverpool; so the Liverpool local authority tried to merge us into Dovecot Junior School. The headteacher was called Miss Kelly.
“In all my years of my career as a social worker I have the most respect for Miss Kelly as she was given a tremendous task to merge 12 Thalidomide children with many different impairments into the school.]
“I remember 12 of us being put into a small garden so that all the children could see us get used to us.
“After a few weeks we were all integrated into different classes.
“Indeed her attitude was ‘everything is possible’.
“My memories of Miss Kelly was she chose me to be in a play and to be the leading part.
“Looking back, that is where I got my acting bug from.
“I now go as a hobby for acting classes.”
Dovecot Junior was only from 7 to 11 years of age. It was time to move on.
Teresa said: “I really wanted to go to Highfield which would have been the senior school in Liverpool with my friends. However, my mother had different ideas. She wanted me to go to the Catholic school St Wilfrid’s in Litherland.
“My parents had a battle in this area because they said I could not go to a non-disabled school. My mother then took this challenge on with the priest and the Headteacher.
“After several stormy meetings I was then inaugurated into St Wilfrid’s school. I can honestly say I did not like the school. It was really difficult being bullied at such a big school to try and get around utilising heavy artificial legs.
“I would often be late for the class, waiting for teachers to lift me up and down stairs. However, I did exceedingly well and I achieved nine CSEs.”
‘I began counselling after being told the world is my oyster’
“After leaving school I went to college in Crosby and did some further education in maths and English which then brought me to the required level to entering my first post as a secretary for the Liverpool Echo. I then moved on to Giro Bank in Bootle.
“I remember having the interview so well and saying to the manager at the time I will give you six weeks and you can give six weeks to see how it all goes.
“I was 18 and stayed there until my early 30s. I led many projects within the bank and received many honours.
“Moving on I was ready for a change! What could I do!
“I had recently been abroad to a worldwide Thalidomide conference. I was really impressed because many countries were counselling the Thalidomide survivors
“I then came back and was truly exuberant and reported this back to the Thalidomide society.
“I then decided that this would be my new course in direction in life so I trained as a counsellor.
“My tutor was a black woman called Pat Shea; she had a great influence in my life and gave me much confidence to carry on further.
“She told me ‘everything is possible for you Teresa, the world is your oyster and you will be inspirational and aspiring to the world’.
“I remember finishing the course. My friends told me they were going onto the interview for the social work course. So I went along very blasé because I didn’t want to be a social worker.
“Most of the social workers that supported us in the past were not very good.
“On reflection, I thought this would be a very good way forward because I could put my skills and knowledge to good use and support enabled families.
“I then got my first job as a social worker in Liverpool City Council and my first manager was also a black woman called Betty Walker. I have to say she too was an amazing woman and gave me great opportunities to be successful with a career spanning 25 years.”
‘It was a shock moving into my own flat at 24’
Teresa was determined to strike out by herself.
She said: “Throughout my life I was always doing voluntary work whether it be for Thalidomide or for sports for disabled. I was constantly busy and enjoying life as much as I possibly could.
“At the age of 24 I managed to move into my own apartment. It was quite a shock having to try and do things for myself, and no social work support.
“I was told ‘you are managing very well by yourself’.
“This would not just be happening in today’s society!
“After 10 years in that flat I then moved into my own bungalow
“I designed both the apartment and the bungalow, so I cannot say I have architects skills!
‘I have always loved travelling’
“I have been very lucky. I have done a tremendous amount of travelling. My sister always used to say ‘how can someone with no legs travel as much as you have?’
“I certainly did have that bug and still have.
“I travelled to the Philippines and was taken back by the poverty there, so I collaborated with the ladies I met in church and they introduced me to the children that they had in her orphanage. I became very attached to the children and indeed two of the boys chose me as their mother. “They were only seven years of age and now they are in their 20s and they still call me Mum.
“Unfortunately I became ill and I had to retire from social work. It was a very big blow to me as I thought my life had finished. However as they say one chapter closes and another one opens. I then moved into another bungalow and started renovating which took me several years to get to my liking.
“Another interest I had really got involved with was hypnotherapy and I have done several courses both in Liverpool and in London.
“Around seven years ago I also trained with Marissa Peer and yet once again another significant person in my life told me I was able to achieve even more.
“I feel I am a very lucky woman because I now have a successful hypnotherapy coaching business – Nopainnogainhypnosis.com.
‘I want a memorial for all the Thalidomide babies who didn’t survive’
“I feel I have been truly blessed by utilising the skills I have to change people’s lives.
“Many people say to me I have been an inspiration to them. I used to love that and sometimes thought of it as rather patronising. However, I see another side to that to think that I have been an inspiration to other people as there is always light at the end of the tunnel.
“I have given many lectures regarding disability to the community both here and abroad.
“There is one more task I would like to complete in Liverpool and that is to have a memorial for all the Thalidomide babies who didn’t survive.
“I am thrilled to have reached 60 and a major milestone in life considering I wasn’t supposed to be surviving
“My Mum passed away in April at the age of 94 and I was able to tell her on her deathbed that we were both survivors and Diagio and Grunenthel that had made the drug hadn’t beaten us.”