Linde Schulte-Hillen remembers exactly when she took Thalidomide. It was August 10, 1960, the day her father died. Everyone in the family took the sedative that night to get some sleep. It was just this once, and just one single pill. Linde, 21-years-old at the time, had recently married and suspected she might be pregnant. But she didn’t worry too much about taking something, since “Contergan” (Thalidomide in Germany) claimed to be “completely safe and non-toxic” and was furthermore available without prescription.
Eight months later, in April 1961, her first son Jan was born in Hamburg, Germany, with two short arms. Linde remembers how she was all alone in the hospital after the delivery, in shock and unable to cuddle her newborn. Her thoughts went all over the place, even wondering about the horrible things she or somebody else in her family might have done to be punished like this. The doctors and nurses at the hospital were of no help either. Instead of comforting her they told her to quickly get another child and simply forget about this one.
After Linde and her husband Carl-Hermann got over the initial shock, they were determined to find out what caused their son’s short arms. Interestingly, Carl-Hermann’s sister had given birth to a baby girl with almost identical malformations a few weeks earlier. The couple started to ask around and heard of more cases in Carl-Hermann’s hometown Minden.
Listen to Linde recount the conversation with her husband Carl-Hermann.
In June 1961 a university friend of Carl-Hermann referred the Schulte-Hillens to Dr. Widukind Lenz, a leading physician at the Children’s Clinic at Hamburg University. Lenz was appalled and started to do some of his own research. He phoned a few colleagues in other German cities and soon compiled a list of even more cases. That’s when Dr. Lenz and Carl-Hermann decided to team up. They drove all over Northern Germany in the Schulte-Hillens’ old, tiny car hoping to find more babies and to discover the cause. With Carl-Hermann’s help Lenz was able to put two and two together and finally connected the malformations to Thalidomide.
Watch Linde and Carl-Hermann’s story
During the Thalidomide Trial (1968-1970) Carl-Hermann Schulte-Hillen was one of the lawyers who represented the Thalidomide children and their families. The Grünenthal defendants didn’t admit to any wrongdoing in the end, but agreed to a settlement payment of 100 million D-Mark (about $30m CDN at the time).
The Schulte-Hillens made sure that their son Jan had a happy childhood and raised him as normally as possible. Jan thrived alongside his two younger siblings. Linde later apologized to Jan for not being able to cherish those first moments with him after he was born. She also says Jan is the best thing that ever happened to her.
Today Jan has his own family and works as an emergency doctor in Switzerland. His mother Linde lives in Siegen, Germany and his father Carl-Hermann recently passed away on Jan. 14, 2017.