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Thalidomide survivor hopes ongoing help around the corner

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/11/2014 (2134 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Affable, articulate and as informed as ever, these days Paul Murphy is a successful businessman and a devoted dad.

The week Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to additional compensation for thalidomide survivors, the man born with flipper-like hands and feet was busy catching a plane with his family.

Paul Murphy, a successful businessman, has been the voice of thalidomide survivors for about 25 years. He was born with flipper-like hands and feet.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Paul Murphy, a successful businessman, has been the voice of thalidomide survivors for about 25 years. He was born with flipper-like hands and feet.

"Vegas for a day or two," said Murphy, 52, looking larger than life in an electric wheelchair as his partner and daughter checked in to WestJet Thursday. "Then on to Louisville for the largest RV trade show in the United States," he smiled.

The trip to Kentucky is a standing business stop for Murphy, who took his passion for autos and turned it into an international business nearly 30 years ago, advising American automakers on a complex menu of compliance regulations to import vehicles to Canada.

For 25 years, Murphy's other passion was seeking justice.

Thalidomide was a prescription morning-sickness pill on the market 50 years ago that left him and 94 other Canadians who are still alive with profound birth defects.

The condition would define Murphy's life.

In an appeal to Harper to do exactly what the prime minister did this week, Murphy introduced himself as one of the founding members of the lobby group that has consistently pushed for justice since the mid-'80s. 

That institutional memory lets Murphy pull facts and figures out of his head, like the one-time, lump-sum assistance package he helped negotiate with Ottawa in 1991. More than $8.5 million was paid to 109 thalidomide victims who were born in Canada and whose mothers had taken the drugs Kevadon or Talimol during pregnancy.

Murphy bought a custom-adapted van he drove into the ground.

This week, Murphy also reminded the PM that, way back in 1963, Ottawa accepted responsibility for licensing the drug and said it should be responsible for helping the individuals born with birth defects as a result.

Now it looks as if that day may arrive.

Murphy is sanguine about compensation. He praises the advocates on the front lines. And he dares to hope there will be a tax-free annuity for him and others like him.

Manitoba wasn't ground zero for thalidomide. Quebec and Ontario were and most of the survivors still live in central Canada. Three, including Murphy, live in Manitoba; maybe eight more in Calgary and Edmonton and a couple in Saskatchewan.

Canada's Conservative government will vote in favour of a parliamentary motion that calls for full support, and while Harper has made no specific promises to offer long-term annual support, the nod is at least a movement in the right direction.

"I haven't had a direct role in it, but what we're seeing today is what we've been trying to do since the 1990s. I've been very impressed," Murphy said.

Perhaps he's being diplomatic.

Barbara Huestis, the love of his life and his business partner, put it more bluntly. "I am surprised," Huestis said. "I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime. It's long overdue."

"But," added Murphy to a reporter, "you know as well as I do it's going to be a while. They are pushing for something, and I've been following it, but I understand the mechanics of government, too."

As an entrepreneur who earns an independent living, Murphy is unlike a lot of survivors in that he doesn't depend on aging parents or a disability pension to get by. He has many of the same health problems, though.

"I've been blessed. I've had parents who taught me and brothers and sisters who helped me," he said. In fact, it was his father, a physician, who delivered him in hospital in the winter of 1962.

Years ago, his parents spoke to the Free Press about their son. Peggy, his mother, called Murphy independent and capable in an interview in 1989. "I'm very proud of Paul," she said from Palm Springs, Calif., where she and her husband, Claude, were vacationing. "With us, it was very normal. We accepted him as we did our other children."

She worried about how he'd manage physically.

"But I can't say he was rejected by anyone who knew us. The people who didn't know us made comments that were meant to hurt," said his mother, adding the family tried to ignore the slights.

While some other families abandoned their babies, she and her husband made themselves experts on thalidomide.

"Certainly, I think love had something to do with it," she said at the time.

Peggy passed away on Boxing Day in 2005. Claude, now 96, moved to Selkirk, the same city where his son now runs his business.

Murphy dropped out of advocacy nearly 15 years ago to concentrate on his business and raise his daughter, Brittany, 23.

"It was time to move on," he said, with a nod to his daughter.

Now it's Canada's turn to do right by survivors of what Canada's national newspaper called one of the worst health scandals in Canadian history.

"All the other countries have stepped up. Canada hasn't," Murphy said.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

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History

Updated on Friday, November 28, 2014 at 8:15 AM CST: Replaces photo

9:32 AM: Changes headline

December 1, 2014 at 5:17 PM: Corrects details of 1991 assistance package.

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