Exhibit pays tribute to pioneering surgeon

Vivien Thomas had key role in Hopkins heart surgeries

February 16, 2007|By Andrew Schaefer | Andrew Schaefer,sun reporter

Felecia Diggs says her mother had to leave school after the third grade to help support her family but has over the years nursed people on their deathbeds and served as a midwife.

"It was just something she naturally did," Diggs said. "If she had the money and didn't have to work for her family, she would've been a fantastic nurse."

Her 83-year-old mother's determination is one reason Diggs finds inspiration in the story of Vivien Thomas, a surgical assistant who overcame racism, poverty and a lack of education to play crucial roles in several breakthroughs in heart surgery at Johns Hopkins, beginning in the 1940s. Now, Diggs, a librarian, is overseeing an exhibit on Thomas.

The display at the Essex Library includes Thomas memorabilia on loan from the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions' archives. Also included in the exhibit are several photos and books, numerous surgical instruments he helped invent and the telephone he used in his lab at Hopkins.

Diggs said she first became aware of Thomas a few years ago when she was working at the Pikesville Library and a customer asked for his autobiography. She was inspired to put together a display on Thomas two years ago at the Pikesville Library. She said that display sparked a lot of interest, and she hopes its Essex twin will, too.

George Smith, a 55-year-old police officer from Middle River, examined the display at the Essex library yesterday. He said he had not heard of Thomas' story before, adding that he'd like to learn more, and might watch the HBO movie, Something the Lord Made, which tells the story of one of Thomas' most significant breakthroughs.

"Brilliant man," Smith said.

Forced to leave college during his first year in 1930 because of lack of money, Thomas went to work for Dr. Alfred Blalock in his laboratories at Vanderbilt University, then at Johns Hopkins, according to a Hopkins Web site.

Thomas, Blalock and Dr. Helen Taussig pioneered a daring procedure to alleviate "blue baby" syndrome, a heart defect that left children frail and blue in appearance and usually meant a short life. The team performed the first surgery in 1944, a time when the heart was considered off-limits to surgeons.

Thomas, who practiced the procedure on lab animals before the first human operation, helped guide Blalock through hundreds of blue baby operations, but it took more than 25 years for him to receive credit for his role.

Thomas supervised the surgical laboratories at Hopkins for more than 35 years, where he helped make many more innovations in heart care.

In 1976, he was appointed instructor in surgery and awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from JHU. He retired in 1979 as instructor emeritus of surgery.

His achievements were described in the PBS documentary Partners of the Heart.

Shortly after the HBO film's release in 2004, Hopkins established the Vivien Thomas Fund for Diversity to increase the number of minorities in the academic medicine talent pool, according to the JHU Gazette.

Thomas' son-in-law, Harold Norris of Catonsville, said his father-in-law was a humble man who didn't see himself as a hero. Still, Norris said Thomas was bothered by the lack of recognition.

Diggs, the librarian, said Thomas' story is evidence that everyone has something to offer.

"I believe all of us have gifts and talents, from the smartest to the not-so-smart," she said. "Sometimes we need help finding out what they are."

Norris put a finer point on the message of his father-in-law's story.

"You can do any damn thing you want if you put your mind to it," he said. "That's his legacy."


Thomas exhibit

The Vivien Thomas exhibit will be on display through March 12 at the Essex Library.

Library hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

The library is at 1110 Eastern Blvd., in the Middlesex Shopping Center.

Information: 410-887-0295

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