Rapper delights in HBO film role

January 29, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

When he was growing up, Dr. Koco Eaton knew his Uncle Vivien as a soft-spoken lab technician who ruled the barbecue at the family's annual Fourth of July picnic in Baltimore.

He had no idea that Vivien Thomas and his mentor, Alfred Blalock, performed the first "blue-baby" operation in 1944, saving thousands of lives and cementing Johns Hopkins Hospital's reputation as a premier surgical center. Or that Thomas, a black carpenter with no formal medical-school training, wasn't acknowledged for his crucial role in the milestone event until decades later.

It was only when Eaton, 42, a Prince George's County native, decided that he himself wanted to attend medical school at Hopkins that he got an inkling of his uncle's legacy. He called Thomas, retired by then, to tell him of his interest.

His uncle promptly arranged for him to have an interview with the school's dean. Then, on Eaton's tour of the hospital, the dean stopped by the Blalock Building to point out the portrait of Eaton's uncle that hangs there.

It was a shock, Eaton says.

"It was like finding out that your uncle was Michael Jordan, but you never played basketball, so you didn't know your uncle was Michael Jordan," Eaton says.

Now HBO is making a film about Thomas and Blalock, to air later this year after a May theatrical premiere in Baltimore. And that brought Eaton another kind of shock.

He learned that veteran actor Alan Rickman would star as Blalock in Something the Lord Made. But the role of Vivien Thomas was to be played by rapper Mos Def. Eaton was at least skeptical. Def had won raves for his Broadway performance in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Top Dog/Underdog, and has also appeared in the movies Monster's Ball and The Italian Job. But could the man responsible for songs like "Ms. Fat Booty" capture his reserved, modest uncle?

Now, with the Baltimore and Carroll County filming of Something the Lord Made just wrapping up, Eaton says he no longer has any doubts. He's met Def, even become a consultant to the film and is helping promote it. He says the rapper was the perfect choice for the role.

"I sort of expected a hip-hop artist to have an entourage and a necklace that looks like a hubcap, but he was none of those things," says Eaton, orthopedist for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball team. "I don't think they could have made a better choice. He's a very quiet, thoughtful, sensitive artist, and he's approaching this with a huge amount of reverence for my uncle."

Talented technician

As a teen-ager growing up in Nashville, Vivien Thomas had dreamed of going to medical school. But after losing his savings in the 1929 stock market crash, he became a carpenter instead. Then he met Blalock, a Hopkins-trained surgeon at Vanderbilt University, who gave him a job in his lab.

When Blalock returned to Hopkins in 1941, he brought his talented lab technician with him. Three years later, Blalock and another doctor, Helen Taussig, developed a surgical procedure that would fix a fatal heart defect in infants that robbed the blood of oxygen, causing babies' skin to turn blue and resulting in thousands of deaths.

But before the doctors performed the first successful surgery on a sickly 14-month-old, Thomas conducted the operation numerous times on dogs to perfect it. When Blalock operated on the first baby, Thomas watched over his shoulder and advised him on technique.

It was the second major surgical breakthrough for Blalock and Thomas, whose research at Vanderbilt showed that traumatic shock came from a loss of blood and that pumping in more blood and plasma could save lives. That discovery helped save thousands of wounded soldiers during World War II.

The blue-baby operation brought fame for Blalock and Taussig, who both were white, and acclaim for Hopkins. Meanwhile, Thomas, overlooked and underpaid, struggled to make ends meet, often tending bar at parties in Blalock's Guilford home.

"It was humiliating to him, but you would never detect that from talking to him," said Robinson Baker, one of Blalock's interns who later became Hopkins' chief of thoracic surgery. "I think we're all appalled at what happened, but not everyone was appalled at that time. It was an opportunity for him to make extra money. I don't think anyone ever put him in that position thinking they were going to humiliate him."

Hopkins did honor Thomas in 1971, when officials unveiled his portrait and hung it next to Blalock's. In 1976, Hopkins also awarded him an honorary degree and he became an official member of the medical-school faculty.

Eaton said his uncle never complained about the belated recognition.

"I never got a feeling of anger or resentment from him. He saw his life as better than what his father had, and his children as having a better life than he had. He took the opportunity that was available to him, and he made the absolute most of it," Eaton said. "

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