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The Thalidomide drug victim who just loves her Jamaican people

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Faith Russell, a Jamaican-born victim of the 1960s “wonder drug” Thalidomide, has been without legs since birth, but that has not interfered with her loyalty to her country and, especially, Jamaicans with disabilities.

“I love Jamaica. I love my people, and I want to make a difference,” she declared, sitting in the back seat of a Kingston taxicab which has been taking her around the country while she is here for approximately three weeks.

“I want to bring awareness to the disabled people in Jamaica, that they are human beings, too. We don't get that respect here and that's what bothers me,” she added.

Russell, 58, has been living in the United States since she was 17 years old, without normal legs, as she is among five Jamaicans with physical disabilities arising from dosages of the drug Thalidomine their mothers took while seeking relief from “morning sickness” during their pregnancies.

The results of using the dreaded drug, which was marketed to relieve morning sickness, were improperly developed limbs, eyes, ears and internal organs, as well as inestimable miscarriages caused by the drug which was developed in Germany in the late 1950s.

“People don't look at us as they should, and I know because I have been out and around. I just left a resort yesterday in Ocho Rios, where I was treated unfairly. I think there needs to be more disable awareness, especially among the younger people,” she explained.

“The young guy who checked me into the hotel didn't give me a room for disabled people. When I went to the manager and told him I couldn't use the bathroom, he asked who he had put me in that room.

“I told him it was the young guy, and he asked me why would he do that and he saw that I have no legs. Now this is the reason why I want to increase the awareness. These people have no regard for disabled people, and they think that because we are in a chair we don't have a say, we have no brains, we have nothing and we are nobodies. I want to change that narrative,” she insisted.

Russell was born in Payne Avenue, Tavares Gardens (Payne Land) near the Three Miles area of south St Andrew. She was taught to use her prosthetic legs and how best to survive as a disabled person with such basic extensions within the society by the late Sir John Golding at his team at Mona, while attending Sts Peter and Paul Preparatory School.

Eventually she went to live with her parents in their downtown community, and attended Haile Selassie High School.

She was coached by the team led by Sir John, who died in 1996 after a tremendous job building up the resources of the uptown Mona Rehabilitation Centre, and the Cheshire Village.

An orthopaedic surgeon who was key to containing the polio epidemic that hit Jamaica in the 1950s, Sir John, father of Member of Parliament Mark Golding, made an immense contribution to the disabled community. Much of his work was concerned with the welfare and rehabilitation of the disabled, particularly those affected by poliomyelitis.

“I come here every year to host my Christmas dinner for the people at Cheshire, and at least five other homes for persons with disabilities. I spend between US$15,000 and US$20,000 out of my own pocket. I bus them into the John Golding centre every year for the dinner and hand out presents, and even cash when I can afford it,” she noted.

“But this year I have come earlier, because of the demand. There is a great need and the people keep calling and asking, so I decided to come early and put everything into one big event,” she said.

“I had taken my test at home [in Sacramento, California] and I started buying stuff like groceries and so on. Already I have spent US$10,000 from my own resources, and I know I am making a difference,” she said.

“I have my own businesses and I am a licensed mortgage broker and a former night club owner. I have raised my seven children — five girls and two boys — on my own (in the United States), because their father felt that he needed a younger woman,” she said, pointing out that after moving to the United States some 41 years ago to join her parents, she has had access to lifetime payments from the Thalidomide compensation.

Russell admitted that despite her disability, she was lucky to have been added to the list of global survivors of Thalidomine who are still benefiting from the damages arising from the effects of the drug. She said the payouts to some 6,000 survivors of the Thalidomide crisis from the Trust have allowed her to invest in her businesses, and to meet the challenges of surviving in the United States on prosthetic legs while raising her children.

“The fund was set up to pay all the mothers of babies who suffered from the Thalidomide, Thalidomide babies effect, and as long as I live I will get this money. But because I had so many kids I had to find other ways of making money to take care of them, so I became a mortgage broker,” she revealed.

She said that while she has been coming to Jamaica every year to relax and assist other persons with disabilities, she sees things getting worse because of the COVID-19 crisis, and is hoping that other sponsors can assist her COPLAAT (Changing One Person's Life At a Time) Foundation to widen its charity net to include more disabled people.

“I have been doing this for 10 years now and I never sought recognition or support before, maybe that is why the foundation is not so well known. I don't want recognition but there is a need, and I know the need because I grew up here in the Mona Rehab Centre. When I left this country I was only 17 but I never forgot the Mona Rehab, so I keep coming back every year and helping those in the disabled community,” she added.

 

 



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