In Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas, author Gwendolyn Hooks tells the fascinating story of how a former carpenter developed a life-saving medical procedure. The surgical technique allowed babies born with the condition tetralogy of Fallot, or blue baby syndrome, to live.thomas_vivien

Vivien Thomas

Vivien Thomas, born in 1910 into a segregated American south, dreamed of a career in medicine. Working alongside his carpenter father, Vivien saved for college, but when the stock market crashed in 1929, he lost his savings. Not giving up on his dream, Vivien interviewed for a position with Dr. Alfred Blalock at the Vanderbilt University Hospital as a surgical research technician. But he was not told when hired that he would receive less pay than the white research technicians and that his official classification was “janitor.”

Vivien quickly learned to conduct experiments independently, and became an indispenable assistant to Dr. Blalock. When the doctor was offered the Chief of Surgery position at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he accepted only with the provision that Vivien would be his research technician. But the move to Baltimore from Nashville was difficult for Vivien and his family. They met with increased segregation and found it difficult to rent an apartment. In her book Gwendolyn Hooks writes: “Vivien refused to let the prejudice of others interfere with his work.”

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Drs. Blalock and Taussig

Dr. Helen Taussig, a pediatric cardiologist, asked Dr. Blalock if he could devise a procedure that allowed open-heart surgery to be performed on her young heart patients. The assignment was given to Vivien Thomas. He studied the hearts of blue babies in a pathology museum noting the defects that prevented blue blood from entering the lungs for oxygenation. He determined that an earlier procedure that he and Dr. Blalock had tried at Vanderbilt would be the answer. A shunt would be used to connect an artery coming from the heart with an artery going to the lungs. Vivien next made a small needle that could be used on babies to suture the arteries. Vivien Thomas then successfully performed the procedure on animals.

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Vivien Thomas Stands On A Stool Behind Dr. Blalock

The first procedure on a baby was conducted on November 29, 1944, on one of Dr. Taussig’s patients. Vivien Thomas stood on a stool behind Dr. Blalock directing the successful operation. Over 150 times, Vivien Thomas stood behind Dr. Blalock anwering the doctor’s questions while the doctor performed the operation. The procedure became known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt. When the two physicians received national and international recognition and were nominated for a Nobel prize, Vivien Thomas’s name was not mentioned.

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Vivien Thomas’s Portrait At Johns Hopkins

It wasn’t until 1971, that Vivien Thomas was publicly recognized for his contribution to medical science. His portrait hangs in the Blalock Building at Johns Hopkins directly across the hall from that of Dr. Blalock. Johns Hopkins University honored Vivien Thomas with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1976.

With author Gwendolyn Hooks’s book Tiny Stitches, children can read and learn about the dedicated medical researcher who overcame racial prejudice to save the lives of “blue babies.” Visit author Gwendolyn Hooks at: gwendolynhooks.com

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Vivien Thomas

To learn more, visit Johns Hopkins at: http://www.medicalarchives.jhmi.edu/vthomas.htm

Jason Wright, a future Ken Burns, narrates this wonderful video.

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