Fame for an unsung hero

Team: The decades-old story of a white Hopkins surgeon, a black lab technician and their lifesaving cardiac procedure is being filmed.

May 12, 2001|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

One man was a black carpenter's apprentice with little more than a high school diploma. The other was a white surgeon who in the 1940s became one of the most famous medical pioneers in the world.

Yet Johns Hopkins Hospital surgeon Alfred Blalock - who helped develop the "blue baby" operation - and his lab technician, Vivien Thomas, would forge one of the most unusual and productive partnerships in 20th-century medicine.

A Washington film company plans to introduce this little-known story to a nationwide audience in a new PBS documentary. More than 10 years in the making, "Partners of the Heart" is scheduled to air nationwide on public television in February.

"It's the quintessential story of the unsung hero behind the scenes," said associate producer Monte Achenbach, who spent the week filming with his crew in Baltimore. Yesterday, they were at Hopkins interviewing surgeons who knew both men.

A New York production company is also rumored to be at work on a TV movie about the duo, who worked together for more than three decades. Paramount, meanwhile, is moving forward on a version for the big screen, according to people close to the project.

To those who have never heard of these men - which is just about everyone outside Johns Hopkins and medical circles-all the attention may seem surprising.

"It's an incredibly rich story," says Katie McCabe, a writer whose award-winning 1989 article in the Washingtonian on Thomas inspired many of the current efforts to bring it to a wider audience.

The two met in 1930 in Nashville, where Thomas grew up dreaming of becoming a surgeon. Working as a hospital orderly and doing construction work with his father, he spent years scraping together money for medical school, a dream that was crushed when his savings disappeared in the stock market crash.

He took up carpentry and met Blalock, a young surgeon at Vanderbilt University who liked Thomas' pluck and gave him a job in his laboratory, helping with his research. A few years later, Blalock returned to Hopkins, where he had attended medical school, with Thomas in tow.

With Hopkins cardiologist Helen Taussig, Blalock set out to work on a surgical fix for a fatal heart defect that killed thousands of babies each year. Called tetralogy of Fallot, it was popularly known as "blue baby" syndrome because the defect robbed the blood of oxygen, causing infants' skin to appear bluish.

Thomas was charged with working out the kinks in the experimental procedure by practicing on dogs. Quiet and methodical, he proved to be a skilled cutter. In one story recounted in Thomas' 1985 autobiography, Blalock stopped by his lab one day to check on Thomas' work.

After looking over a heart that Thomas had repaired, the surgeon asked, "Vivien, are you sure you did this?" When Thomas nodded, Blalock marveled, "Well, this looks like something the Lord made."

When the day came to perform the operation for the first time on a baby in November 1944, Blalock asked his black assistant to join him in the operating room. Blalock had done the operation only once before in the lab; Thomas had performed it nearly 300 times.

"Is the incision long enough?" Blalock asked during the surgery on the 14-month-old girl. Or: "Is that all right, Vivien?"

Soon after the blue baby operation - which launched the modern era of cardiac surgery - many surgeons flocked to Thomas' lab to learn the technique. Achenbach, the PBS film producer, says these men and women provided some of the most powerful and emotional testimony to Thomas' skill as a surgeon.

Rowena Spencer, a retired pediatric surgeon living in New Orleans, wept while describing her debt to Thomas. "I was trained by a black man with no more than a high school diploma," she told the film crew.

The partnership ended with Blalock's death in 1964. Thomas died in 1985 at age 75.

To make the documentary, Achenbach and the production staff have spent the past year traveling to Tennessee, Rhode Island, Florida and as far as England to film interviews with former patients, colleagues and relatives of the two men. In Baltimore, they've interviewed surgeons, including Dr. Levi Watkins, the first black surgical resident at Hopkins and a protege of Thomas'. They hope to return next month to interview Thomas' widow, Clara.

The filmmakers spent countless hours rummaging through the National Archives, National Library of Medicine and other places for letters, paperwork, and even music recordings to flesh out the segregated world in which Thomas and Blalock lived, an era in which the two couldn't sit side-by-side in a coffee shop outside the lab. Thomas performed his remarkable work at a time when black employees at Hopkins held only janitorial and other low-level jobs.

To earn extra money, Thomas would occasionally work as a bartender at formal parties thrown by the surgeons, presumably even waiting on people who earlier in the day had been his trainees.

Understanding how Thomas felt about his place in society - and medical history - has been hard to tease out, said McCabe, who is working with Paramount to make the movie version of Thomas' life. A proud and careful man, Thomas did not disclose his feelings to his colleagues or in his autobiography about race and the segregated society of Baltimore.

In his lifetime, Thomas did receive recognition for his work. In 1976, Hopkins awarded him an honorary doctorate. The school also commissioned a portrait. Today it hangs not far from that of his friend and mentor in the Blalock Clinical Sciences Building at Hopkins' East Baltimore campus.

Still, his dream of becoming a surgeon never came to pass. Although he performed hundreds of operations on animals and taught countless white surgeons their craft, Thomas was never permitted to operate on a human.

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