In November 1944, Eileen Saxon, a critically ill, fifteen month “blue baby” (weighing just 9 pounds) was wheeled into the Johns Hopkins operating room. Dr. Alfred Blalock, chief of surgery, and Dr. Helen Taussig, chief of pediatric cardiology were going to attempt open-heart surgery to correct the baby’s condition and cure blue baby syndrome. It would be the first time Blalock tried the procedure outside of the laboratory, and on a human being. No one, except Blalock and his assistant Vivien Thomas, believed a cure was possible, and they had spent a year investigating and devising a surgery to correct it.
That first heart surgery was a success! But the story began fourteen years earlier…
An extraordinary partnership began in Depression Era Nashville, TN in 1930, when Blalock hired Thomas as a janitor in his Vanderbilt University lab. Thomas’ remarkable manual dexterity and interest in science caught Blalock’s attention, and Thomas rapidly became indispensable as a research partner to him. They moved in 1941 from Vanderbilt to Johns Hopkins, a renowned Baltimore, MD, medical institution where the only black employees were janitors and Thomas had to enter through the rear of the building.
This was a partnership that broke the rules of their time. A white, wealthy, doctor who was the great grandnephew of Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, and a black, carpenter’s assistant with no formal education. Thomas earns Blalock’s respect by his work ethic, humility, initiative, drive, and ability to create the instruments they need. Blalock praised the results of Thomas’ surgical skill as being “like something the Lord made.” He even insisted that Thomas coach him through the first Blue Baby surgery in Eileen Saxon, over the protests of Hopkins doctors and administrators.
Yet outside the lab, they remain separated by race and class. Thomas attended Blalock’s parties as a bartender, working for extra income. The hospital refused to pay Thomas as a lab technician because he has no formal education. When Blalock is honored for the Blue Baby success at a segregated upscale hotel, Thomas is not invited.
Blalock and Thomas were a formidable combination of creativity, vision, daring, and skill. They came from very different parts of society, and social pressures threatened to undermine their partnership, diffuse their efforts, and destroy their friendship. Their friendship overcame the disparity between their two worlds and the relative anonymity in which Thomas labored even as Blalock achieved greater fame and recognition.
Blalock and Thomas defied the rules of their time to launch a medical revolution that would improve the health of people with faulty hearts around the world. These men invented a remarkable technique for performing heart surgery on “blue babies,” and they leaped over medical science by at least a decade.
They persevered and ultimately invented an entirely new field of medicine, which enabled them to save thousands of lives. Blalock and Thomas took risks because their work was so important. Rent the movie based on their story, “Something The Lord Made.” Then emulate their vision and use your skill to improve the world. What has God gifted you to accomplish in medicine, science, education, or the arts? Serve globally.
Love is a verb,