An unexpected birthday is cause for celebration

Party: Joleen Pearson Reynolds never thought she'd reach her 60th birthday, but when she did, she honored the doctors from Baltimore who helped her survive.

March 05, 2001|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Joleen Pearson Reynolds, a Texas teacher and civic activist, celebrated her 60th birthday yesterday by honoring some Baltimore medical legends who made her life possible.

It was a fine affair, in the Junior League of Houston's tea room, with a band that cheerfully played one of her childhood piano favorites, "Blue Boogie."

Forrest Reynolds, 31, her firstborn son, an investment banker with Credit Suisse, flew in from California. Her second, Fisher, 26, a newly minted Navy pilot, won a last-minute leave.

What they celebrated - besides the people who made it possible - was a life of volunteering for civic, charitable and political causes while working and raising two children. According to Reynolds, the most important hat she has worn is that of a mother, something she once feared she could never be.

Among the more than 100 guests were those who helped her raise money and push causes at places like Houston's symphony and ballet, her church, the Houston Cancer Society, and the largest Republican women's club in Houston, the one she founded with Barbara Bush.

There were friends, too, from the nine years she headed the effort to reform Houston's family courts and set standards for child support and alimony for women who had stayed home - an effort born of her own frustration over post-divorce issues that languished 11 years. Her group was not the only one that campaigned to get "crotchety old judges out of there." The FBI investigated rumors of poker games lost to judges who favored men in divorce cases. Laws changed in Texas, HBO made a documentary, and the judges are long gone.

Civic activism stems from Reynolds' love of politics; she might have majored in it at the University of Texas had her parents not insisted she become a teacher. After her children grew up, she went back to work in a middle school as a speech pathologist.

"This is not a woman who sits down very long," says Gretchen Panuzio, of Alexandria, Va., a former college roommate.

To Reynolds, life is an adventure. "The only thing that holds me back is money, sometimes health, but mostly money."

Her health was the reason she didn't think she'd live to be 50. When her doctor told her five years ago she could live to be 80, Reynolds was shocked.

"I said, `80? I don't have enough money to live to be 80,' and I went back and put some money into an IRA and started researching retirement funds."

Four years ago she started researching her health history on the Internet. What she found led her to stay a few extra days after her son's graduation from the Naval Academy to drive to Baltimore to research the people who made it possible.

Archivists at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine didn't understand who she was until they located 44 letters between Alfred Blalock, the famed Hopkins surgeon (chief of surgery, 1941-1964) and a doctor in Dallas, J. Warner Duckett, one of his students.

The first letter, dated April 3, 1946, asked permission for Duckett to observe Blalock perform a "Blue Baby" operation. In the last letter, in 1951, Duckett reported that he had performed 105 operations and the last 25 had been successful.

Joleen Pearson Reynolds was No. 100. She was 10 years old at the time.

She was born with tetralogy of Fallot, a heart condition that depleted her oxygen levels and often left her faint and turning blue and so tired she squatted. Children with the heart defect in the 1930s and 1940s often died of it. She was among the first 1,000 patients to have the so-called Blalock-Taussig operation, in which one of her carotid arteries was used to bring blood to her lungs. Afterward in her community, she became known as the "miracle child."

The surgery was an interim measure in the decade before the heart-lung machine, making open-heart surgery possible. Children born with the defect now have corrective surgery within the first year of life. Reading her doctors' letters made Reynolds realize how primitive medicine was in the years after World War II and how much more accepting doctors were of the risks of pioneering treatments.

These people should be revered, she thought.

When she asked a friend at ABC in Houston to tell the story of the pioneering heart doctors, she was rebuffed - everybody knows heart surgery began with two Houston doctors: Denton Cooley and Michael DeBakey, the bypass surgeon and so-called "father of heart surgery."

In fact, Cooley, who operated on Reynolds a second time to fix her congenital heart defect, had been a student of Blalock's at Hopkins.

How to restore the Hopkins doctors' place in history? A woman who loves events, Reynolds decided to honor them at her own birthday party, the party she never thought she'd see, on what is the 50th anniversary of her operation.

Thus did surprised friends open pink-striped invitations to a "celebration of life" honoring Reynolds and "the late Dr. Alfred Blalock, Dr. Helen Taussig, Mr. Viviene Thomas, who created an operation which saved the lives of children ... and the late Dr. J. Warner Duckett."

Duckett, who pioneered the surgery in Dallas, was for decades chief of surgery at Baylor University Medical Center.

Blalock, whose name is enshrined in a building at the Hopkins hospital, developed and performed the first surgery with the help of his renowned technical assistant, Thomas.

Taussig was a cardiac pediatrician at Hopkins who realized her patients' conditions were caused by a lack of blood flow to the lungs and suggested the solution to Blalock.

Their work was considered revolutionary; it made surgeons realize it was possible to go in and out of the chest, not the heart, to improve someone's health drastically.

Yesterday's partygoers left with unique favors - paper-bound biographies of the people who made it possible. You can learn their stories, too, at

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