Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Hats off to Guy Tweedy and David Mason, exemplary campaigners on behalf of Thalidomide victims

Hats off to Guy Tweedy and David Mason, two men whose campaigning on behalf of Thalidomide victims is exemplary.

Tweedy, a Harrogate businessman, has long campaigned on behalf of Thalidomide victims. A couple of weeks ago he continued his tireless representation of those whose lives were blighted by the drug by flying to New York to assist 53-year-old Mark Gizewski.

Mason's daughter, Louise, was born without arms or legs because of the drug. Ever since he has fought for compensation from the Thalidomide's UK distributor, Distillers. His story was told in last week's heartrending and yet inspiring BBC2 documentary, Thalidomide: The Fifty Year Fight. It is a story of remarkable courage and determination as GrĂ¼nenthal, whose product was responsible for more than 100,000 babies in 46 countries being born with disabilities, fought tooth and nail against paying compensation to its many victims.

Gizeski's case

Gizewski suffered tragically because of Thalidomide. He was born with a number of deformities including dwarfism, scoliosis of the spine, severe deformity to his limbs and sphincter and bilateral radial club hands. He has the mental age of a 10-year-old. His learning difficulties are attributed to his having spent the first five years of his life in hospital.

Gizewski is a full-time wheelchair user. He is also a petty criminal and has served time in New York's Five Points Correctional Facility. Here, says Tweedy, US prison authorities have subjected him to physical violence and intimidation. Adding insult to injury, they have neglected his medical needs. Tweedy believes that Gizewski should be released on permanent parole. As he puts it, in this piece in the Harrogate Advertiser:

"Mark's case is one of the saddest I have ever come across in all my years' campaigning on behalf of fellow victims. Because of his learning disabilities he fell into the wrong crowd, and subsequently found himself on the wrong side of the law. His treatment in prison has been diabolical. His pleas for help and medication to ease his chronic pain fell on deaf ears and the injuries he sustained are truly shocking."

Tweedy previously campaigned for the release from a Filipino jail of William Burton, from Wetherby, who was jailed for 30 years in 1992 after being caught trying to smuggle 12lb (5.4kg) of cannabis out of the country. Burton has a Thalidomide-related condition, but thanks to the efforts of Tweedy, Thalidomide UK and other campaigners was granted a pardon in 2011 by President Benigno Aquino.

Thalidomide in context

To rewind and puts things in context, Thalidomide was manufactured in the 1950s. It was sold from 1957 until 1962. Initially used as a sleeping pill, its use morphed into an apparent panacea for pregnant women suffering from the effects of morning sickness. Tragically, though, it caused many different forms of birth defect.

The drug was withdrawn from sale in 1962 after the link between its use and deformities - including shortened limbs, blindness, brain damage, missing sexual organs and missing internal organs - was conclusively proved. But as if its victims had not suffered enough, the past 50 years have been a different kind of battleground.  The German manufacturer of the drug, GrĂ¼nenthal, only recently managed to issue a public apology to Thalidomide victims.

Tweedy is himself a Thalidomide victim. His work on behalf of other victims has been exemplary. While this week sees him in the United States trying to help Gizewski, earlier this year, in January, he was in Brussels lobbying the EU Health Commissioner. He presently sits on the Council of the estimable Thalidomide Trust. Its work on behalf of Thalidomide victims is excellent.

Mason's courage

As the BBC2 documentary revealed, Mason kept going when others would have crumbled. He knew something was wrong when the doctor in the delivery room came out and asked – "With no congratulations or anything" – if he could have a word. Mason strode past him to see his wife and his baby daughter. As he put it: "And there was just a – torso, with what appeared to be little flowers where her arms and legs should be."

Mason refused a derisory offer from Distillers. It was a deal that was ethically unsound: everyone had to sign it, or no one got anything. Mason's refusal, on principle, meant that the families of other victims took against him. So, too – extraordinarily – did his own solicitors, petitioning to have him removed as Louise's guardian.
But Mason was unbowed. With commendable help from a number of quarters, including the Sunday Times, he pressed on. Eventually Distillers came up with £300m for the 300 children still involved. It was accepted. No wonder Louise calls her father "a hero".

Your support is needed

Tweedy has already begun lobbying the American Ambassador in London, New York State Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schuner, and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. He told the Harrogate Advertiser, of his trip to New York, that he is determined "by the time I leave for home he will have a parole date set. Giving up is not is my nature - American prison authorities will come to understand this."

As a personal injury lawyer I can only admire and commend Guy Tweedy's fantastic work. Likewise, I can only stand back in awe of Mason's great and relentless courage.

And I can urge my colleagues in the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers to pick up the baton, do likewise, and pledge to help Thalidomide victims wherever possible.

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