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Television drama can, by its very nature, be a vehicle to relay a message to the viewing public on an issue which is high in social, moral or political content.  And so I have no doubt, that many Thalidomide impaired people settled down to watch Holby City on BBC1 last night (25th August 09) to see how using Thalidomide for medical purposes would be portrayed during primetime TV.

Mat Fraser, an accomplished actor in his own right, and also one of my many Thalidomide impaired friends, gave a good convincing performance of a patient diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma – a terminal cancer with limited treatments being available.  Having been diagnosed with Myeloma he was offered the choice of palliative care or a more radical treatment which, whilst not curing his condition, could prolong his life by possibly 18 months.  The irony in this case was the patient was a Thalidomide man in his late 40’s being offered the chance of “extra-time” by taking a concoction of drugs including Thalidomide – the very drug that had caused so much suffering during his lifetime.

The character had enjoyed a good life despite his impairment, and recently discovered he was the father of a child by his Vietnamese girlfriend.  He was therefore presented with a dilemma as to whether he accepted his condition or sought to prolong his life in order to spend time with his son before his death.  

What concerns me for viewers, who have not been affected by the Thalidomide tragedy, is that the outcome of the programme will be that far more people with Myeloma and possibly other conditions will now misguidedly demand Thalidomide.

Thalidomide is currently licensed for the treatment of Multiple Myeloma, but is still being prescribed on a “named patient” basis and for research purposes for other conditions.  The manufacturers continue to work on its development, and of course in the process make many millions of pounds from striving to regenerate what was commonly known as a ‘wonder drug’.

During the programme, the script writers touched upon the havoc Thalidomide wreaked in the 1960’s.  Mat’s character relayed his desire to just walk down the street – anonymously – and without people staring at him.  Had they been brave enough, I think the script writers could have gone much further… Throughout the world there are thousands of Thalidomide impaired people, not only of my generation, but also of the so-called second generation in South America, who struggle to cope with their Thalidomide impairments.  Chronic pain, depression and bodies ageing at a far greater rate than our peers, are just some of the problems that we face on a daily basis.

But I appreciate that patient storylines are there to link the continuing saga of the medical personnel at Holby, which run through the whole of the series and can only be limited in what they cover.

In 1999, I attended a convention organised by the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada.  During the convention, one of the Doctors who spoke bravely told us how he foresaw a situation where Thalidomide impaired people might benefit from the use of Thalidomide for cancers and other conditions in later life.  

And so it was that last night’s programme became a case of drama meeting fact, which mirrors much of what we see on television.  The dilemma of health over risk is one which presents itself on a daily basis to those working in the field of medicine and medical research.  It was not an easy subject to tackle, and for me the jury is still out as to whether the BBC did justice to this contentious issue, or not.

One of the closing images from programme showed the Thalidomide man pondering over whether to take the drug.  In the end, his decision was made on the basis that by taking the drug he would be able to see his son, and some of you reading this blog may consider that to be the right decision. 

Having lived with my Thalidomide impairment, and seen the regeneration of Thalidomide gather pace over the last decade, I am still not convinced, that given its past, it is right for the drug to be used at all.

If science deems that Thalidomide should be used for patient care, then unlike the patient on Holby City who was just offered a pamphlet about the drug, those who are either advised or are considering using Thalidomide should remember its history and be told of its known toxicity so that they can make an informed choice on usage.

(More information on this issue can be found in Four Fingers and Thirteen Toes by Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds)