Surgeon opens young minds to better future

March 10, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

DR. LEVI Watkins Jr., a Johns Hopkins heart surgeon and civil rights activist, set out Tuesday to operate on 250 Baltimore high school students seated before him in the hospital's Turner Auditorium.

He wanted to implant hope. He wanted to inoculate against low aspirations. He wanted to impart vision.

He knows the grim statistics about young black men in America's cities: Many end up in jail, on probation or dead. Any inclination to look for talented kids disappears in a cloud of cynicism: Every kid becomes a punk or druggie; every kid gets relegated to the statistics.

Not these kids, though. They listened to Dr. Watkins' unvarnished view of the challenge they face, hooked by his personal history, by his use of rap lyrics - and anxious to probe his optimism.

First, Dr. Watkins and the students watched highlights of a film called Partners of the Heart, an account of the 35-year partnership between Vivien Thomas, a black laboratory technician with skilled hands, and Dr. Alfred Blalock, a Hopkins physician who ventured into what was then a forbidding domain - heart surgery.

With Dr. Helen Taussig and others at Hopkins, Mr. Thomas and Dr. Blalock found a way in the 1940s to make oxygen-starved blue babies turn bright pink - to give them and their parents hope for life. What they did allowed for even more adventurous surgery, including Dr. Watkins' pioneering work on implementation of a small defibrillator that can restart a failing heart or correct its rhythm.

"A blue baby, a black man and a miracle," the doctor said. He urged his audience to believe that opportunity could arise for them as well and to be as hungry for it as Vivien Thomas. He urged them to see Mr. Thomas, Dr. Watkins and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. - and themselves - as links in a chain of achievement.

"Shake your booty," he said, paraphrasing the rap artist Mystikal. "Show me what you're working with." Having a different understanding of the rapper's meaning, the students laughed - but they hung on Dr. Watkins' words.

At Dr. Blalock's insistence, Vivien Thomas stood behind him while one of the first blue baby operations was performed. The black man stood on a stool, guiding his white partner's hands.

They worked their magic in the operating room at a time when they could not have had lunch together in the hospital's cafeteria. This was a time when white doctors at Hopkins faced powerful censure if they addressed their black patients as Mr. or Mrs. Respect undermined segregation.

Nevertheless, genius was recognized. Vivien Thomas trained many Hopkins surgeons, including the famous Denton Cooley from Texas. Mr. Thomas was still working at the hospital when Dr. Watkins came on the staff from Vanderbilt University, where he was the first black medical school graduate. Hateful epithets and other things were thrown in his face.

"If I could do it, students, I guarantee you you can," he said. "It's a much better place than when I grew up. People care a lot more. Not enough for my satisfaction, but you can lift yourself."

Long lines formed behind microphones for the question and answer session.

Q: How did you deal with the hostility?

A: "I was sorely tempted to use the scalpel that came with one of the student doctor kits," he said. But his mother and father had always counseled against violence.

Q: A lot of us don't have the same family background, said a Western High School student.

A: "Somewhere, someone will touch you - a teacher, someone at church. Leave yourself open for that. ... You must have an anchor. Don't underestimate your God-given talents."

Q: Being a religious person, asked a student from Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, how do you feel about stem cell research and cloning?

A: "Stem cells are given to us by God in the first place. So I believe very much in stem cell research. As for cloning, we get smarter technically sometimes than we do morally."

Q: Would you describe the program at Hopkins?

A: It's no different for black students. Some effort is made to provide cultural activities that will appeal to black applicants, he said. But there's "no remedial program, no subcommittee for brothers, just the cultural things."

Q: What are your greatest accomplishments?

A: "I operated on my own father. He lived two more years - two more Christmases, two more Father's Days.

"And my attempt to diversify this institution [Hopkins]. We've made progress at every level, from the trustees to the dean's office, in the faculty and the house staff."

So, now, in the spirit of Vivien Thomas and Dr. King, Levi Watkins turns to a generation with new needs.

These young men and women are, in a sense, the unfinished business of civil rights. Without new thinking and new commitment, they will be engulfed by a legacy of poverty, drugs and discrimination. But they, too, can overcome.

"Shake your booty ... and shake the world," the doctor said.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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