When my son was born, I glanced at his tiny, tightly curled fist and gasped, “Oh, my God. What happened to his thumb?”
The obstetrician shrugged. “Sucking.”
“In utero?” I couldn’t believe my ears.
“Happens all the time. Wait for the orthodontist’s bills!”
What else, I wondered, happens before we are born?
I know women who continue, even step up, their normal athletic activity during pregnancy, hoping the fetus will soak up the abilities through the umbilical cord. I know women who played Beethoven and Mozart constantly, praying their child would be a musical prodigy at three. I even know women who read to their unborn child and repeated strange things such as “two plus two equals four” on the off-chance the kid would get a head start on formal education.
OK. So I know a lot of weird women, but I have never seen, or read, any proof that ice skating, attending operas or reading Jane Austen during pregnancy results in gifted offspring. I do, however, know first-hand about the indubitable harm caused to an unborn child by a drug taken by its mother.
Years ago, thalidomide, prescribed for morning sickness, caused horrendous birth defects. Babies were born with no feet, no hands. Sadly, thalidomide isn’t the only culprit. Babies born to smoking mothers generally weigh less than babies born to non-smoking mothers. Babies of cocaine-addicted mothers are born addicted and suffering. Use of alcohol during pregnancy may result in new-born ailments.
Most young mothers-to-be are aware of these dangers, whether or not they decide to risk them. However, many mothers-to-be don’t know that many prescription drugs, ordered by the doctor pre-pregnancy and considered harmless for the mother, may cause serious problems in the fetus.
In December 1977, my grandmother, the first love of my life, died suddenly. With a teething toddler in tow, I flew from Montreal to St. John’s, Newfoundland, rented a car and drove five hours to my parents’ home. When I arrived, I was exhausted, on the verge of collapse. My sister, a veteran pill-popper, took one look and said, “You must get some rest.” She pressed a small white pill into my hand. “Here, take this. It’ll help you sleep.” Against my better judgment, I took it.
When I took that pill, a commonly prescribed tranquillizer, I didn’t know I was a week or two pregnant. In September 1978, my daughter was born with a hip dislocation, inherited from my grandmother, and one leg that wouldn’t behave normally. In most newborn babies, the left foot turns left and the right turns right. Both my daughter’s feet turned right, a defect which, if left untreated, would cause her to trip when she walked.
Jennifer celebrated her first Christmas wearing a small, gold ribbon halo--a “gift” from her big brother, and a large white cast--courtesy of her orthopedic surgeon. Naturally, I blamed myself. Normal mothers do, even when they aren’t at fault. I knew where the hip dysplasia had originated--my genes. Heartsick at my double whammy, I researched my daughter’s non-genetic birth defect ad nauseam.
What I discovered chilled me. The very type of tranquillizer my sister had given me may cause mild to severe abnormalities of the fetal extremities, if ingested in the early (formation) weeks of pregnancy. Translation: Take that pill and your baby may be born with defects in the arms or legs.
My daughter was lucky; her problems were mild, and corrected while she was still very young. She was blissfully unaware of the new cast every Monday morning for eight weeks. She learned to climb the stairs to her bedroom while wearing a long metal bar screwed to the bottom of her grossly expensive orthopedic baby shoes. A lot of soul-searching, a couple of years and many pairs of special shoes later, she could finally stand and walk normally. She grew up to excel at ballet. I grew wiser, counting my blessings.
My desire to self-flagellate came back with a vengeance this morning when I read a newspaper ad publicizing The Hospital for Sick Children’s Motherisk program. Motherisk teaches pregnant women, and those hoping to become pregnant, how to keep their unborn babies safe and healthy. The messages are clear: If you’re a hard drug user, get clean before you get pregnant. If you become pregnant, eat properly, abstain from alcohol, don’t smoke and avoid areas where second-hand smoke abounds, be tested for HIV, and keep away from people suffering diseases such as chicken pox.
May I add one more caveat? If there is any possibility you may be pregnant, do your unborn child a favour. Take a pregnancy test before taking any drug, even one prescribed by your doctor. If you’re pregnant, tell your doctor. She may need to prescribe a safer, alternative medicine. If she can’t, and the medicine is not absolutely necessary for your own health, just say, “No.”
Incidentally, Neil is now twenty-seven and the dental bills for the correction of his thumb-sucking damage have stopped. Now I have more than one reason to thank God.Copyright © 2003 Ev McTaggart