“I was almost four when it first occurred to me that no one else was missing legs”
When Eileen Cronin found out that she was expecting a baby, she started to panic. What if her child would have the same disabilities she has? Eileen was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1960, with both legs missing from the knees down and only four fingers on her left hand. She believed her deformities were caused by Thalidomide but didn’t know for sure since her mother for the longest time denied ever having taken the drug. But when Eileen got her first ultrasound, she remembers how the technician zoomed in on the baby, found one foot “blew it up, took a picture and wrote, ‘foot’. And then ‘other foot’, ‘hands, fingers’. And I was crying and all the interns started clapping. We knew that she would be okay.” A few months later her daughter Ania was born perfectly healthy.
Eileen wasn’t the only baby born with malformations in Cincinnati in the early 60s. That is where Richardson-Merrell, Grünenthal’s licensee partner in the US, had their headquarters. The American drug company had ambitious plans for Thalidomide. Richardson-Merrell had handed out more than two and a half million free samples of Thalidomide pills to doctors all across North America. Luckily for the US Richardson-Merrell’s plans were spoiled by Dr. Frances Kelsey, a young pharmacologist from Canada working at the FDA who was extremely concerned about the drug’s safety and blocked its introduction, undoubtedly sparing the US from thousands of malformed babies. It is very likely that Eileen’s mother received one of those sample pills from her Cincinnati GP around the time she was pregnant with her.
Eileen remembers her childhood in Cincinnati well. It wasn’t always easy. She was born as the sixth of eleven children into a deeply religious Roman Catholic family. Her parents were shocked when they saw Eileen for the first time, but quickly accepted her birth as “God’s will” and “their cross to bear”.
Unlike most other Thalidomiders Eileen got used to wearing artificial prosthetic legs to get around. But she says she always felt most free when she could take the heavy legs off to go swimming or skinny-dipping, like an “an elusive mermaid, the Venus de Milo spit from the ruins.”
“Mermaid. A Memoir of Resilience” is the title of the autobiography Eileen published in 2014 which became one of O (Oprah) Magazine best memoirs for that year. The bestselling book chronicles her life, including stories of bullying at school and her quest for answers and love. She was able to turn her life around and today she is a successful writer with a degree in clinical psychology, is happily married, has a daughter and lives in Los Angeles.