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T. J. Wang My Chinese Name, Ph.D.

    The story of my life actually begins several years before I was born. Chemists at a West German pharmaceutical company were trying to produce an anti-histamine in 1953. However, they accidentally created a new tranquilizer, which they named Thalidomide and marketed on October 1, 1957, with a huge advertising campaign. The new preparation was hailed as a “wonder drug”, so safe that even if a toddler swallowed a whole bottle it would not do any harm. Thalidomide was then sold in at least 46 countries under many different brand names. In Taiwan, where I was born and raised, the drug was called Isomin and was sold there from 1958 to 1962.

    In November, 1961, an Australian obstetrician, William McBride, published a letter in the British medical journal, Lancet, making a connection between the birth of disabled babies and the use of Thalidomide for morning sickness by pregnant mothers. Later research confirmed that if Thalidomide were taken during pregnancy, particularly in the first trimester, it caused startling birth malformations and a high death rate among newborns. At the time of ingestion, the drug could affect any part of a fetus that was in development. The drug was withdrawn worldwide in the summer of 1962, but by then, at least 12,000 Thalidomide victims had been born in 46 countries (not counting victims stillborn or miscarried). Only 8,000 newborns survived past the first month of life. Today, there are approximately 5,000 survivors alive worldwide. The birth defects among those who survived include deafness, blindness, disfigurement, cleft palate, many internal disabilities, and, of course, the disabilities most associated with Thalidomide: phocomelia--a congenital deformity of the fetal limbs, characterized by short, stubby hands or feet attached close to the body.

    When my mother was pregnant with me, a local pharmacist in Taiwan gave her Isomin to ease her severe morning sickness. As a result, I was born with many bones missing in my upper limbs and shoulders. The cause of my birth defects was not known until 14 years later.

    I was born with short arms that lack wrists and elbows. My left hand has two fingers, my right hand has three fingers, and neither hand has a thumb. I could not independently carry out activities of daily living until I was 12 years old. Fortunately, I have been able to overcome most of the limitations that I was born with and can handle most of the objects and activities that were not designed for people like me. For example, I can use chopsticks, write, type (about 25 words per minute), ride a bicycle, swim, play table tennis and pool, do arts and crafts, use a variety of tools, cook Chinese food, do Chinese calligraphy, drive an automobile without any modifications, and I changed my daughter’s diapers when she was a baby. Indeed, I have won trophies in competitive table tennis and obtained certificates in advanced computation with an abacus—out of the 20 levels possible, I scored 7 levels with the left hand and 8 levels with the right hand.

    When I was a kid, I dreamed that one day I would have a life, an ordinary life, just like everyone else. I am so happy that I not only made my dream come true but have also accomplished so many things along the way.

"If there is a Will, there is a WAY"