Friday, February 18th, 2011
I haven’t heard anything about blue babies in a long time. I was familiar with the term when I was a child, maybe because I grew up in a doctor’s home. I didn’t know what it was, except that it was bad.
Blue baby syndrome is a congenital malformation of the heart. The resulting lack of oxygen causes the child’s extremities to be blue. Until the 1940s, blue baby syndrome was a death sentence.
In 1944, Dr. Alfred Blalock of Johns Hopkins announced that the development of a tiny valve device and pioneering surgery could now save the life of a blue baby. We can imagine the drama and acclaim that erupted around him.
A couple of years ago, I happened on a DVD that gives the credit due to the man who worked with Dr. Blalock. Something the Lord Made portrays the vital role Vivien Thomas played in that lifesaving breakthrough.
Thomas had dreamed of becoming a doctor himself, but the 1929 stock market crash left him with no funds to study beyond high school. He took work as a lab assistant, doing mostly menial clean-up work. When Blalock realized Thomas’s intelligence and yearning to learn, he gradually advanced him to the work that a doctoral research assistant would be doing. It was unsettling to people to see an African-American man wearing a white lab coat.
When Blalock performed the first blue baby surgery, Vivien Thomas stood on a stool looking over his shoulder, giving instructions. Thomas was the one with surgical experience, having performed this procedure on a number of animals. Dr. Blalock had done it only once before.
To realize how amazing this surgery was, we need to know that at the time, the heart was considered off-limits for surgery.
It was years before Vivien Thomas received credit for his contributions. The 1945 article in time doesn’t mention Thomas. But eventually, he became Supervisor of Surgical Research Laboratories and an Instructor to surgical students at Johns Hopkins.
Today his portrait hangs across from Dr. Blalock’s in the lobby of the Blalock Building at Johns Hopkins.
Even more interesting would be to learn the story from Vivien Thomas himself in his autobiography, Partners of the Heart: Vivien Thomas and His Work with Alfred Blalock.
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