The Miracle Baby From El Salvador: The Ana Calvo Story

Photo of Ana
Photo of Ana

In October 1957, Grunenthal, a German pharmaceutical company, introduced thalidomide to the world. Like so many other discoveries in the field of pharmaceutical science, thalidomide was touted as another in a long line of new “wonder drugs” that was destined to alleviate pain and suffering associated with a myriad of illnesses and afflictions. Some said thalidomide was a “sure cure” for coughs, colds, headaches, and, believe-it-or-not, insomnia. It was also being recommended to thousands of pregnant women throughout Europe, Great Britain and many other countries around the world as an effective drug to relieve the nausea brought on by morning sickness.Soon after its release, the glowing virtues of thalidomide quickly vanished and was replaced with a dark, sinister cloud of regret that would haunt young mothers and their children for the rest of  their lives.

Dr. William McBride, an Australian obstetrician, and Dr. Widukins Lenz, a German pediatrician, were among the first physicians to suspect a link between a growing number of birth defects and thalidomide. In 1961, Lenz proved his suspicions were validated and the drug that had earlier reveled in a barrage of positive press was quickly removed from the market place. Unfortunately it was too late  for thousands of excited parents and  their newborns. More than 2,500 thalidomide babies were born in Germany. It is estimated  that 466 thalidomide babies in the U.K. survived traumatic births, but were left with bodies that were  less than normal.

Well past the day thalidomide was banned for the uses of morning sickness in Europe and Great Britain, children in South and Central America were being born with defective or missing arms and legs.  Ana Calvo was born in El Salvador. When she was a little girl she moved with her parents to Houston.

Even though her new American home provided young Calvo with opportunities far beyond those available in Central America, her life would still remain difficult and challenging. Thankfully, her indefatigable spirit and unshakeable optimism would lift her up and move her forward to places she could only imagine.

When she entered school in Houston, little by little, Calvo not only caught up with her contemporaries, but began to pass them in almost every academic
category. She was granted the privilege to attend a magnet high school where exceptional achievers were the bulk of the student population. There Calvo began to consider attending Law School and becoming a lawyer, but her plans changed as her passion to help others like herself began to deepen.

Naturally, after graduating high school, Calvo was eager to attack college. She received a bachelor’s in social science from the University of Houston-Downtown with a concentration in psychology and sociology, and a minor in political science in 2002. She then went on to earn a master’s degree in social work in 2007 from the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work. She received the Dorothy Caram Commitment to Leadership Award from the United Way Foundation. She has been recognized as one of the 100 Houston Latinas Women in Leadership and has served on Houston civic and community boards. Today, Calvo is the director of transition services at Houston Community College VAST Academy. The awards and recognitions this young woman has received during her 34 short years of life are incredibly impressive. She has accomplished more than most people twice her age. But, what makes her achievements even more impressive is that she was born with no arms or legs. Yes, Ana Calvo is a thalidomide baby.

Early in her pregnancy, Calvo’s young mother was prescribed thalidomide and by all accounts she only used it once. Her pregnancy was picture-perfect: strong heart-beat, textbook weight gain and nothing that would cause alarm. But as is customary, a sonogram was scheduled. As fate would have it, when Calvo’s mother arrived for the electronic look at her baby, the machine was broken. Calvo’s parents were unable to see their yet to arrive
baby whose arms and legs did not exist.

It is only human nature to ask, “What if the sonogram had worked? What if Calvo’s parents had seen their unborn baby without limbs?” Instead, why not believe, like Calvo, that the  broken sonogram machine was a miracle.

“Of course my parents were shocked, as well as the doctors. No one knew whether I would survive. Everyone was afraid how my mother would react so they did not let her see me until three days after I was born. Finally, she told the doctor she wanted to see her baby,” Calvo said.

As each day passed, Calvo’s little body grew stronger and stronger in spite of the lack of limbs. All signs kept pointing to the fact that the Calvos had a very physically and mentally healthy baby. There appeared to be no medical reasons to keep Calvo in the hospital any longer. The best and only advice the doctors could give the young mother and father was to take her home, watch her closely, and do their best to give their daughter a happy, healthy life.

Calvo’s mother knew her baby would be a curiosity and knew it would be virtually impossible to shield her from staring eyes and unintended cruelty. Fortunately, for the most part, when they did venture out to  neighborhood parks or public places with Calvo, people were curious, but respectful.

Soon, it was obvious to her parents that the kind of assistance Calvo  would need to succeed in life was not available in El Salvador. Her grandfather, who was a member of the Freemasonry in El Salvador, was aware of the incredible rehabilitative services for kids like Calvo that were available at the Texas Shriners Hospital for Children in Houston. It was not long after initial contact was made with the hospital that Calvo and her parents were on their way to Houston. They knew immediately this was one place that could teach Calvo how to live an independent and productive life. They also knew there was much for them to learn in order to know how to help Calvo. So with that in mind, the Calvos sold their business, home and many of their personal possessions and moved the family to Houston where Calvo would spend countless hours of physical and occupational therapy for many years.

“They taught me how to do things for myself. All kind of things. They instilled self-confidence and taught me to believe in myself and that I could do anything I set my mind to do. The most important thing I learned was to not think any less of myself because I had a disability,” Calvo said.

Even though the hospital in Houston did a masterful job of instilling infinite confidence and unique physical skills in the little girl from El Salvador. They could not protect her from others who seemed determined to inflict cruelty on those who are different and vulnerable. Sometimes the hurt was intentional, but often, especially in Calvo’s teen years, it came in the form of high school cliques and raging hormones that plague many young adults. As Calvo says, “It was the crummy years." Girls would exclude her. Boys wouldn’t talk to her. Even others with  disabilities were less than kind. Fortunately for Calvo, when the slings and arrows of adolescence pierced her heart, a wonderful group of friends were ever-ready to tend to her wounded spirit. Even today, many of those same friends are a constant source of encouragement for Calvo.

Calvo’s story and life can only be described as inspirational and humbling. For those of us born with strong arms and legs there are a myriad of lessons to be learned from Calvo and her extraordinary life. How did she overcome so many obstacles and conquer countless challenges? From wheredid her courageous spirit come? Ironically, at the core of Calvo’s boundless, determined power came from her first grade teacher.

“She was phenomenal. She taught me one of my biggest lessons. She said, ‘You will always have to work for what you have. No one is going to give you short-cuts because you have a disability.’ I’ve carried her word with me all my life,” Calvo said.

What would happen if every parent taught their children the simple lessons Calvo was taught as a child? If they did, our children would know that short cuts put you on a road to nowhere. They would know that hard work,setting goals and believing in yourself can make it more than possible for  you to go anywhere and do anything your heart desires – even if you were  born without arms or legs.

Thank God the sonogram machine didn’t work. Yes, it was a miracle and so are you, Ana Calvo. So are you!

Ana may be reached at

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