(In case you missed it: stream episode 7 online.)
Call the Midwife never shies away from serious or even tragic topics, always mixing them with some levity so it’s not too much for the viewers. But when you have an episode like this one where Trixie’s heartbreak is the comic relief, you know it’s an especially tough week!
I’m guessing there are many people my age who grew up hearing about Thalidomide children and thanking their lucky stars that their mothers didn’t take it – and it was only purely by chance they didn’t. I am sure I’m not the only Call the Midwife fan who is glad the producers brought back a family we met last season because, as we all know, birth was not the beginning or the end of the Thalidomide story. Here we break down the thirteen essentials of Call the Midwife, episode 7…
- Third Time’s a Charm, NOT!: Mr. Dockerill stands Trixie up.
Trixie has a three-day lead time for a hot date with a cool dentist and she needs every minute of it to achieve the level of perfection she sets for herself. She is essentially trying to look like she’s been Photoshopped. There’s the hair and the nails. Then the total closet inventory, wherein it is determined she has nothing to wear. Not even the ice blue Lurex will do. A shopping excursion is required, but in the end it is all for naught.
He’s a no-show! He stood her up – and in a pre-historic way too: No text, no phone call, just a note left on the doorstep. Could he not even knock and hand it to someone? Are his knuckles out of commission? Is he that afraid of running into Sister Monica Joan? And worst of all, he signed his note with the ambiguous, ‘Best’ (which is anything but). And this was the third time he’s done it! Three strikes you’re out, I say.
- Best Boy: Trixie tries to give Mr. Dockerill another chance.
Trixie, however, is a more forgiving umpire. She tries to give him another shot. When she stops by the hospital on a mercy mission (for the Antoine family), sees Dentist Mr. Dockerill’s car parked outside. As she goes to leave him her own note, she sees a woman’s scarf sitting draped over the seat. Who is this hussy? She summons her wayward Dentist for a meeting where she, in a roundabout way, accuses him of seeing someone else, and he bites. He admits all. He says he is seeing someone else, and that she’s blond and sweet and funny and …and she’s his six-year-old daughter (who’s got rather sophisticated taste in scarves for someone her age). It turns out he is divorced, with a child, and Trixie is upset he hadn’t told her this before. She returns home in tears.
Since cocktails are off the menu, Trixie drowns her sorrows in a banana custard as Nurse Valerie Dyer tries to console her. Valerie reasons that everyone has secrets, usually out of fear. As she goes on, she says some secrets are because of this and some because of that, and ‘some will get you prosecuted.’ Prosecuted? Did anyone else’s ears perk up when they heard that particular reasoning? Does Valerie have a secret that would get her prosecuted? Is that why she really left the Army? And if so, what is it? We are curious but we’ll have to table that discussion for a later date while we deal with Trixie’s love life.
Valerie’s talk inspires Trixie to confront her own secrets, specifically the one she herself has been keeping from Dentist Dockerill, or Christopher, as we learn his first name is. She apologizes for misjudging him. It’s time to tell him that she’s a ‘friend of Bill’, (i.e.: a member of Alcoholics Anonymous). And it turns out she was worried for nothing. He admires her for it and promises no more champagne. Will Trixie now relax with the perfection a little, maybe allow herself to go out with a chipped manicure once in a while? Time will tell.
FYI: In case you were wondering (as I was) Lurex is a type of synthetic yarn with a metallic appearance, and the shiny cloth created with that yarn is also called Lurex.
- First, Cause No Harm: It only takes a second for Nurse Crane to steer into near tragedy.
Nurse Crane’s day starts off promising enough, with bird poop on the windshield. On your head, bird poop generally means good luck. (At least that’s what people say – though what else can they say?) On your windshield, however, I’m not so sure, especially considering what transpires later.
Nurse Crane has an affinity for the Antoine lads, who are part of her Cub Scout troop, so when two labor calls come in at once, she swaps expectant mothers with Barbara so she can attend to Carrie Antoine.
- The Antoine family live together in perfect harmony – but get bullied when they leave the house.
Nurse Crane pays a call to Carrie Antoine, mother of three energetic boys (Wesley, Jerome, and Lenny). She is about to give birth to her fourth and wants the big event to be at a certain time when they, and her husband, will be out at school and work so she can have her baby in peace and quiet. Nurse Crane reminds her she can always book into the maternity home for delivery but she’d rather not because of all the whispering and questions that would ensue. She doesn’t want to have to explain her family. She is white and her husband is black. This causes their boys to be bullied out at school and play.
During Mrs. Antoine’s delivery, they use up all the gas so they need to call Nonnatus House for more. Sister Winifred is on duty and hops to it, but Fred has all the bikes out of commission on routine maintenance (not too swift), so she has to sprint over with the gas canister and bag, arriving only after the baby has arrived. Nurse Crane is none too pleased and makes sure to let her know as soon as they get to the car.
- Driving Miss Winifred: Nurse Crane gives Sister Winifred quite the lesson.
Nurse Crane is livid that Sister Winifred didn’t turn up with the gas in time. She insists that Sister Winifred could have driven instead of ran (Though considering she has the only car, we’re not sure what Sister Winifred would have driven even if she could.) and that she get in some practice, now, sitting next to the backseat driver from hell. Nurse Crane may think she’s helping but her uber-criticalness makes Sister Winifred too nervous. She has been asking anyone but Nurse Crane for help with her driving test studies because she knew Drill Sgt Crane’s style of instruction would zap her fragile confidence.
Nurse Crane’s technique for calming high-strung Sister Winifred’s nerves is to yell at her. Good idea. Of course it’s oh-so-easy to relax when someone is screaming “RELAX!” at you. Sister Winifred short circuits and halts mid-intersection, blocked car horns blazing. They play musical chairs and put Nurse Crane back behind the wheel where she continues to bleat on at Sister Winifred — and we can see what’s coming before they do. Between berating Sister Winfred and adjusting her rear view mirror while in motion, Nurse Crane is distracted for just the split second needed to not be able to brake in time when a boy darts out into the street. (Did you gasp when that happened? I did!) It’s Lenny Antoine! Nurse Crane is stunned into a near catatonic state.
At the police station, Sgt Noakes gathers information for the magistrates’ court, should it be necessary. Angry and frantic, Mr. Antoine runs in. When he finds out Nurse Crane was the one who hit his son, he lashes out, accusing her of drinking on the job. (He had offered, almost insisted, on a drink to wet the baby’s head but she had declined.) She is given a urine test which (later) comes back entirely clean.
- Sticks and Stones: Lenny Antoine ran away from bullies and right into traffic.
Meanwhile, Winifred thinks it’s all her fault. Both she and Nurse Crane are inconsolable. Lenny Antoine has a concussion and a broken femur. Nurse Crane is on cleaning duty until the investigation is concluded, but she has already convicted herself. In the end, it was Sister Winifred’s detective work that solved the puzzle. She suspects Wesley and Jerome saw what happened to Lenny and ran away because they thought they’d get in trouble for disobeying Mummy who always told them to stay in the play street where there are no cars. Under gentle questioning from Sgt Noakes, they share the full story: Lenny ran into the street because he was running away from kids who were calling them names. When their Dad says, “don’t I always tell you to just walk away?”, Mum responds that that is just what they did. In a way, they did what their parents said; when they were called names they walked (ran) away — and into traffic. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Antoine want to press charges against Nurse Crane, saying she’s a good woman.
- Tea and Sympathy: Curate Tom comforts Nurse Crane (or tries to).
Nurse Barbara does a little match making. She tells Nurse Crane she should get some fresh air, then sends curate Tom out to the bench with tea and some pastoral care. Tom talks about spirituality, and forgiveness, but Nurse Crane is matter of fact. As a ‘rational’, non-believer she has no one to question but herself. I’m not sure if that’s meant to be an indictment or an endorsement of faith. Even Tom informing her that Lenny will be alright doesn’t shake this existential crisis.
- Freeze Frame:Nurse Crane gets her confidence back.
On call for the first time since the accident, Nurse Crane freezes when the phone rings. She has to be pushed to the phone and out the door by Sister Monica Joan, who rides shotgun and navigates. On this call they encounter Vera, a single woman in labor, on her own and distraught over how she’s going to care for a baby. Snapping back to form, Nurse Crane asks Vera when was the last time she ate. When Vera answers it was the day before, Nurse Crane sets out to get her some food and remedy that situation first. In the end, the birth goes well and via service to others, her faith in herself is restored.
With normality returning, back at Cub Scouts Nurse Crane decides to use their treasures from home (which seems to be the British name for show & tell), to make a difference for the Antoine boys. They bring their new baby brother, and Lenny reads an essay that shares the story of why his skin and hair look the way they do, and their mixed race family. The scouts all flock around, and we hope this is a turning point for them, something that helps foster understanding and create another safe space for them.
- Return Ticket? Where is Patsy?
In other news, Delia sees the obit for Patsy’s father in the newspaper. He died two weeks ago in Hong Kong, but Patsy hasn’t been in touch since she left. Where is Patsy? Will she return? And if so, in what state? Will it be too late?
- Almost Mother’s Day:Shelagh is ready to give birth.
Shelagh is in the last couple of weeks of her pregnancy. She’s ready to pop, and still cannot believe her luck, that her prayers for a healthy baby are so close to coming true. Nurse Barbara reminds her how important it is for her to relax and enjoy these last weeks. Barbara preaches serenity (which can be stressful in itself).
- Silence Equals Death: The shadow of Thalidomide returns.
Wasn’t it just a week or two ago that we were pondering how nice it would be to catch up with characters who have crossed paths with the Nonnatuns in past seasons? That’s exactly what happened in this episode. It’s the Mullucks family, Rhoda and Bernie, who last season had a baby after taking Thalidomide. Baby Susan is now 18 months old. As we catch up with her, she is rejected by a nursery school because of her condition and Rhoda is distraught. She goes to see Dr. Turner, who still feels guilty about being the one who (unknowingly) prescribed the drug that left so many babies with such devastating birth defects. He tells Rhoda that he has booked Susan in for a limb fitting consultation at Queen Mary’s hospital, and drives them there himself.
At the Queen Mary the Mulluckses meet Lydia and her son Philip, who has no arms (which doesn’t seem to bother him). Philip isn’t speaking yet. They’ve only just been told he is deaf. Lydia comes armed with a flask of coffee every day and, given their circumstances, is very proud it’s not gin. She shares her non-gin coffee with Rhoda as the two trade information and find sisterhood in this little club no one would ever want to join. Bernie is having a harder time, and after seeing a little boy standing on rocker feet, he bolts.
FYI: Queen Mary’s Hospital at Roehampton (in Southwest London), where Dr. Turner took the Mulluckses, was founded during WWI as a military hospital specializing in the rehabilitation of amputees. It quickly became a world renowned limb fitting center, known as ‘the human repair factory’.
- Love means never having to say you’re sorry: Rhoda and Bernie clash before they connect.
Things are not so copacetic at home between Rhoda and Bernie. They argue over what the best course of care will be for Susan. As we remember, dad Bernie had a hard time accepting Susan when she was born, but now he doesn’t want her to go anywhere and be viewed as freak. No hospital, no school, no nothing, nowhere but home because home is the only place she’s ’normal’. Rhoda disagrees; she wants Susan to have every opportunity her two other kids have. She is reluctant to leave Susan for a weeklong stay at Queen Mary’s, but she know it’s in Susan’s best interests. In anger, he blames her for taking the pills that did this to Susan and storms out. Susan goes looking for him at the pub, and finds sheepish Bernie having a swift half. She tells him they need to be a team. He concurs and she makes a rule: No more apologizing for things that are out of their control. They recognize that love will keep them together and they’ll need all they can get to get their family through this.
The families who find each other at Queen Mary’s start a support group. All are mystified as to why the story of what is happening is being ignored by the papers. Distaval (AKA Thalidomide) was licensed in 1956, and the first deformed babies were born in 1957, but all these mothers were given the drug long after that. As they find each other, they are getting more information, bonding together as a community, and asking, “why?”
FYI: Reach For the Sky: Douglas Bader, who was mentioned by Dr. Turner, was a celebrated hero of WWII, a flying ace of the Royal Air Force, despite being a double amputee. While performing flying acrobatics in 1931 he lost both legs in a crash. After recovering, he asked to be reactivated as a pilot. Instead, the RAF retired him against his will. However, after WWII broke out, he was allowed to return as a pilot and proved his mettle at Dunkirk, the Battle of France, and the Battle of Britain. In 1941, after being shot down, he had to bail out over German-occupied France and was captured. After several escape attempts, he was put in a prisoner of war camp, where he stayed until 1945 when he was liberated by the US Army. In the 1950’s he wrote his autobiography, Reach for the Sky, which was later turned into the film mentioned in this episode. He spent the rest of his life campaigning for people with disabilities, despite (in later years) becoming a controversial figure because of his bigoted political views.
- 50 Year Struggle: Thalidomide parents fight for justice
In 1962, parents of children affected by Thalidomide formed The Thalidomide Society. In the UK, over the span of four years, about 2000 babies had been born with Thalidomide related disabilities. Most were not allowed to survive. They were either smothered by doctors or (like we saw last season) were left in a cold room to die. Of those who lived, half died before turning one year old.
Thalidomide was developed in post-war Germany, by convicted Nazi war criminals working for German drug company Chemie Grünenthal. They put the ‘knowledge’ they got from experiments on victims in death camps to use in developing Thalidomide. Their Nazi philosophy that life is cheap, and a means to their ends, infused their drug business. Thalidomide was first licensed and prescribed in the late 1950’s. It was on the market for five years before independent testing found that it was responsible for thousands of severe birth defects — about 20,000 worldwide, and the number of miscarriages caused could be as high as 100,000.
By 1959, it was clear that Thalidomide was causing serious problems for both babies and adults. But it was also very profitable, so Grünenthal suppressed this information for years, bribing officials and pressuring medical journals and critics. The scandal that erupted around Thalidomide changed the way drugs were created and brought to market. Before Thalidomide, all new drugs were thought of as beneficial. This wrongdoing led to more stringent drug testing and a criminal trial (the first of its kind) that required the drug manufacturer to pay damages to the victims. It wasn’t until 2012 that Grünenthal issued a statement saying it ‘regretted the consequences of the drug’, which survivors dismissed as insulting. This non-apology was also controversial because it coincided with a revival for the drug for other uses. (It has been shown to be effective with Leprosy and AIDS.) Many warned it would lead to off-label uses and end up in the hands of pregnant women once more, especially in countries where regulations are lax – and it has. In Brazil, where it is used for leprosy symptoms, there is now a new generation of Thalidomide survivors.
As the parents questioned why nothing was said or done about Thalidomide for years, I was reminded of the early years of the AIDS crisis, another health crisis ignored for expediency, politics, and bigotry. Jenny Lee’s epilogue mentions that the Thalidomide parents fought 50 years for justice. That fight is ongoing in the UK where about 470 of those Thalidomide babies survive to this day.
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