Film will give lab technician his due

Documentary on his role in `blue baby' operation has premiere at Hopkins

January 16, 2003|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

In November 1944, Johns Hopkins surgeon Alfred Blalock performed the first successful "blue baby" operation, pioneering with pediatric cardiologist Helen Taussig a procedure that would save countless children from a deadly heart defect. It brought the two white physicians instant worldwide acclaim.

But what few then knew was that standing over Blalock's shoulder to help guide his hand was a black man with only a high school diploma.

The story of what Vivien Thomas was doing in the surgery ward that day is as complex and gripping as the blue baby operation itself - and the subject of a new documentary slated to air on PBS next month.

Partners of the Heart will be shown nationwide at 9 p.m. Feb. 10. Yesterday, the documentary was screened at the Johns Hopkins University's East Baltimore campus to a packed auditorium that included former colleagues and relatives of Blalock and Thomas, the surgeon's lab technician.

"It's good to see Vivien finally get his due," Dandy Blalock, the surgeon's son, said after the showing.

The two met in 1930 in Nashville, where Thomas had grown up dreaming of becoming a surgeon - a dream that evaporated when his savings disappeared in the stock market crash.

Thomas applied for a job at Vanderbilt University. Blalock, an ambitious young surgeon there, hired him to maintain his lab notebooks.

By the time Johns Hopkins offered Blalock a job a few years later, the surgeon was by then so reliant on his assistant that Blalock insisted Hopkins hire Thomas, too. The school agreed.

The film portrays the complex nature of their relationship working in a segregated hospital, where the two men couldn't sit side by side in the cafeteria.

To earn extra cash, Thomas would occasionally agree to work as a bartender at parties thrown by Blalock, serving drinks to some of the same surgeons who had worked with him in the lab earlier in the same day.

Still, "he never complained," noted Thomas' daughter, Olga Norris, after yesterday's premiere.

Soon after arriving at Hopkins, Blalock set out to work on a surgical fix for a condition called tetralogy of Fallot, a heart defect that killed thousands of babies each year. It was popularly known as "blue baby" syndrome because the defect robbed the blood of oxygen, causing infants' skin to turn blue.

Blalock and Taussig devised the procedure. But it was up to Thomas to make it work.

The technician practiced the procedure on dogs, and his skill with a surgical knife quickly became apparent. After examining a heart Thomas had repaired one day, Blalock said, "Vivien, are you sure you did this?"

Thomas nodded.

"Well," Blalock marveled, "this looks like something the Lord made."

The day Blalock stood over the first infant to undergo the procedure, he looked around and saw that Thomas was not there.

"Go get him!" the surgeon ordered. Only Blalock knew why: He had practiced the complete procedure just once before, while Thomas had done it several hundred times.

After the operation, surgeons flocked to Hopkins to learn the new technique. For most, it was not Blalock but Thomas who served as teacher.

"He is the most untalked-about, unappreciated, unknown giant in the African-American community," Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., a Hopkins cardiac surgeon who worked with Thomas, says in the film.

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