“We’ll just have to look after her very carefully then, won’t we?”
~ Wendy Rowe, Lynette’s mother
In July 2012, Lynette Rowe, an armless, legless Thalidomider, won a multi-million dollar settlement in a groundbreaking class action suit against Diageo, which has acquired Distillers, the original Thalidomide distribution company. Lawyers Peter Gordon and Michael Magazanik decided to sue for damages with Lynette as the test case precisely because her case was the most difficult of all the Australian Thalidomiders. Both lawyers have extensive class action experience with asbestos and other big Pharma claims in Australia. Magazanik, a trained investigative journalist and lawyer, spent months in Germany digging into the archives and discovered that the limitation on the long-sealed German court documents from the ’68 German trial was finally lifted. What he was shocked to find was that Grünenthal did not conduct proper testing of Thalidomide and that they ignored obvious evidence of baby malformations. Diageo settled out of court after being presented with the evidence. Grünenthal, the co-defendant, applied to have the trial moved to Germany to make it impossible for Lynette to pursue the case in a foreign land and in a foreign language, but lost their application.
Wendy Rowe doesn’t remember much about Lynette’s birth in March of 1962 except that the silence in the delivery room was deafening. Lyn was born without arms or legs. The parents rejected the doctor’s advice to let the baby die and started the long family journey (with their two other children) caring for a severely disabled new addition to the family. They lived in a working class neighbourhood where their neighbours made clothes for Lyn and their kids accepted her disabilities. When Lyn was 11 months old and teething, she developed a high fever and because she had no arms and legs to dissipate the fever she incurred brain damage. The Rowes held strong with love and constant care, and little Lyn survived. Lyn’s grandfather even invented a spinning-spoon wheeled feeding mechanism so that Lyn could feed at her own pace from the dozen spoons of food laid out by her parents.
Lyn’s mother is not sure that she took Thalidomide from the doctor down the street, who treated her for morning sickness. Distributor reps at the time gave out samples of drugs to doctors freely and at the time the dangers of Thalidomide were not yet widely known. Wendy’s doctor did not keep records of his medications. Due to the lack of documentation, the Rowes received no government support except for a small disability stipend (not related to Thalidomide) given to Lyn when she turned 16. Wendy had to quit her teaching job and Ian didn’t make nearly enough working for an insurance firm. It was a tough life. Getting up 3 or 4 times a night to roll Lyn over and the full-time mother’s care Lyn needed made life very hard for the Rowes. As the parents reached their senior years, the house was falling into disrepair and the Rowes were barely able to cope. Their biggest concern was, who was going to look after their Lynnie when they were gone?
The Rowes fortunes turned when lawyer Peter Gordon proposed that Lyn be his test case in the class action suit. When Gordon visited the family at their old house so badly in need of repairs, he was shocked to see the ground exposed below the gaping floor boards. He knew the case would take years and he couldn’t be sure of a victory. He also knew it would emotionally drain the whole family. Peter rallied together his friends and contractors to tear down their old house in order to build and furnish a new wheelchair-accessible house on the same plot so that the Rowes would still have their neighbours and friends around them. It didn’t cost them a cent. Peter says even if he lost the case, the Rowes would at least have the house.
Diageo followed through with a multi-million dollar settlement for Lyn and again later for approximately 100 other Thalidomiders in Australia and New Zealand. Now Lyn has a caregiver which takes the pressure off of the parents, and Wendy and Ian know that Lyn will be looked after when they are gone. The Rowes have made the term ‘salt of the earth’ take on new meaning for all who have come in contact with this wonderful family.