His Hands Saved Our 'Blue Babies' - The Legacy of Dr Vivian Thomas

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Born in a family of former slaves on August 29, 1910, and with no formal secondary education, how did Vivien Thomas become of the most important cardiac surgery pioneers in America? The man who didn’t go to medical school, how did he become a part of the team that would go on to innovate the procedure to solve the blue-baby syndrome?

If you’re interested in medical history, you might have heard the name Vivien Thomas mentioned in some text or documentary (Partners of the Heart, PBS) or even the movie Something the Lord Made (HBO, 2004).

Thomas started out his life as an exceptional student with dreams of going to the medical school one day. However, his dreams were put on hold as his early life was one adversity after another.

He grew up in a segregated America, with his fate already assumed by a large section of people.

Later, he lost all his money when the banks crashed in the Great Depression. The money which he had saved for college while working as a carpenter. Then his means of living was taken away as he was laid off, probably in the aftermath of the Depression.

Despite all this, he still managed to enroll himself in the pre-med programme. But the universe would not stop putting hurdles in his way. Due to financial constraints and other issues (Jamal and Megan discuss them in our podcast), he was forced to put his education on hold.

But when life gave him lemons, he made life-saving medical techniques instead of simply lemonades.

As he accepted a job as a surgical technician, he met his future Blue-Baby Syndrome mentor and surgeon, Alfred Blalock at John Hopkins. Thomas would eventually become so invaluable to Blalock’s work that the latter would actively try that Thomas shouldn’t go back to his life as a medical student. Evil or adorable? That’s up for debate.

Thomas used to assist Dr Blalock on his experiments on animals (mostly dogs). Within a few weeks, he was basically doing the job of a post-doc student despite being named a “janitor” on the records.

Their primary research was about the crush syndrome. It must be noted that when they ventured into cardiac interests, they were doing some quite blasphemous as it was considered taboo at the time to operate on the heart. Tetralogy of Fallot was a condition in which oxygen-poor blood leads to a blueish hue on the child’s skin. It was a lethal condition at the time. Thomas not only came up with the techniques to resolve this condition surgically, he was even a part of many surgeries. (Though illegally as he wasn’t a certified doctor).

As for his personal life, his whole existence as a black man was a taboo. His new town was racist, plain as day. From housing to job; the colored discrimination wouldn’t cease to rear its ugly face.

But in a world where “black” employee automatically translated to “janitors,” Thomas would dare to dream. Eventually, he was granted an honorary doctorate from John Hopkins School of medicine. 

His legacy goes way beyond the titles bestowed upon by his primary employer. To learn more, hop on here to our podcast.