According to the March of Dimes, one out of every 33 babies in the United States is born with some kind of birth defect. The severity of these problems is broad reaching, from minor defects needing no intervention at all to those requiring invasive surgical treatment.
It’s important that people understand how many different kinds of birth defects exist and how they affect the child, and the family. A structural birth defect occurs when a part of the body is missing or deformed. Kidshealth.org reports that heart defects are the most common of these but others include cleft palate and spina bifida.
When the child’s body chemistry is affected, it’s called a metabolic defect, which prevent the body from breaking down food for energy. Tay-sachs and phenylketonuria (PKU) are examples of this kind of defect. Causes of birth defects are not always clear but may include a combination of genetics and outside influences such as prescription drug use.
My mother, Lois, was epileptic. Sometime in her 20s she was prescribed phenobarbital to help reduce seizure events. Phenobarbital is an FDA-approved drug introduced in 1912 and was presumed safe. Mom took it for decades, including during the entire time she was pregnant with me.
According to findings by the North American Antiepileptic Drug (AED) pregnancy registry, and countless medical studies, phenobarbital has been linked to a myriad of birth defects. Research shows the drug to have some negative effect on an expectant mother’s level of folic acid.
Enter, me. I came into the world in the late 60s, fat, happy … and somewhat inside out. I was blessed by one of those structural birth defects mentioned earlier, apparently the result of my mother’s anti-seizure medication.
Without getting into specifics I had an internal organ protrusion to the outside through a defect in the abdominal wall, missing vertebra, malformed hip joints and several other related deformities.
As a result, I was neither expected to walk nor was there any exact estimation of a prognosis. Much of the surgical procedures involved in my care had yet to be invented and it took many years to get some of it right. Fortunately, nearly a half century later, thanks to medical science and my family’s level of faith and determination, I’m up and walking and in relative good health.
During her pregnancy with my two siblings in the early 1950s, my mother was not yet on the drugs and they were born with no similar issues. And, although the exact causes of my defects were never conclusive, mostly due to the lack of medical knowledge on the subject at the time, the drug angle is widely accepted as fact.
Countless lawsuits are going on to help families of those children affected by these drugs. But that’s a little like closing the barn doors after the horses have come home.
After decades of experimental surgery, trial and error medicine, and, at many times, constant pain, when I see an expectant mother smoking or drinking or doing something equally as stupid, I just want to scream. She has no idea what she is probably doing to her child and what he or she will go through because of it.
My mother and her doctors didn’t know that her treatment would do such damage to her youngest child’s life. But now, in our modern day of free and easy access to constant information, how can anyone be so ignorant as to do that to an unborn child?
And spare me the speeches and excuses about addiction. If you’re pregnant, you stop. If the life of your unborn child isn’t enough motivation to make you put down the bottle, or whatever it is that makes you a bad risk, nothing will be. You have to do whatever it takes to stop and hope the damage isn’t already done.
The point is that there are things we cannot control for our children and those that are entirely up to us. Do not consciously put your child through the kinds of horrible things I experienced because of a lack of knowledge or an unwillingness to change.
Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business writer. Deer In Headlines is distributed by GLD Enterprises Communications, Ltd. More at deerinheadlines.com