Thalidomide survivor struggles for compensation

Bernadette Brousseau says she has had little to complain about in her 51 years. Though she's had reason to.

'We have no proof other than ourselves as human beings and the struggles we're facing in life'

Bernadette Brousseau, 51, is seeking compensation as a thalidomide survivor. But without her medical records which were destroyed in a hospital fire, she faces an uphill battle. (CBC)

Bernadette Brousseau says she has had little to complain about in her 51 years.

Though she's had reason to.

She was born with missing bones, deformed limbs and organs that have kept her in an out of hospital and make it hard to walk. 

Growing up, she never wondered why she was different from the other kids of the rural community of St. Vincent about 200 km northeast of Edmonton. 

And nobody ever told her.

Her parents never talked about why she, the youngest of 14 children, was so different from her siblings.

But Brousseau began to wonder when thalidomide survivor and motivational speaker Alvin Law came to speak at her high school.

She realized her symptoms were very similar to Law's.

Law spoke about how thalidomide was prescribed in the early 1960s to expectant mothers to help combat nausea, but instead resulted in babies being born with missing limbs and other problems.

Over the next 10 years she became convinced her deformities were caused by thalidomide and when the Canadian government first offered compensation to thalidomide survivors in the 1990s, Brousseau applied.

Doctor denied prescribing thalidomide

"I sent the government pictures of myself and they gave me forms to fill out," she said. "I went to see the doctor that delivered me and he just denied that was the med he had given to my mom."

Because she had no proof from her doctor, she couldn't fill out those forms. 

"I was young so I didn't fight it."

But when compensation was offered again this spring Brousseau applied again. This time she needed to. Arthritis had invaded her body, making it impossible for the first time in her life to hold a job. 

The Canadian government announced yearly payments for those suffering from the effects of thalidomide in amounts of $25,000, $75,000 or $100,000. 

But the government demanded proof: a receipt of a settlement from the drug company; medical or pharmacy records showing her mother used thalidomide; or her name on a government registry of thalidomide victims.

Brousseau could satisfy none of those conditions. A fire at the St. Vincent community clinic where she was born, destroyed most of her medical records. Her mother and father are long dead.

Now, as her day-to-day life becomes more of a struggle, the uncertainty cuts deeper. 

'I've never asked for anything'

"It's frustrating," she said. "I've always been independent. I've never asked for anything."

Brousseau and dozens of others like her across the country have started a Facebook group and a petition to demand better from the government. 

"Look at me. What more do you need?" she said. "We have no proof other than ourselves as human beings and the struggles we're facing in life." 

But with the change of government, everything is on hold, she said.

Health Canada said it's in the process of hiring a third-party administrator that will look at ongoing and new survivor cases, like Brousseau's. Once that administrator is named, new victims will have six months to identify themselves and find out how to apply for financial help. 

While Brousseau hopes she can get that help — she says she also wants recognition. 

"Just by looking at us and seeing our deformities and seeing the struggles that we've had throughout our whole life and where we're going now. We aren't getting better. We are getting worse."


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