Where Black History Month and American Heart Month Intersect

With February being Black History Month, the majority of my focus has obviously been on highlighting the accomplishments of Black Americans (this has been going on over at my Facebook page). This will continue throughout the month of February, but February is an important month to me for another reason as well. February is known as American Heart Month, a month aimed at raising awareness to heart health, and as a mother of a child born with congenital heart defects, this is an issue that hits pretty close to home. So while I want to continue to focus on Black History Month, I also want to make sure I am bringing attention to National Heart Health Month as well. I was sure there had to be a number of history making Black cardiologists, which would allow me to highlight both worlds, and a quick Google search introduced me to my new hero: Dr. Vivien T. Thomas.

Dr. Vivien Theodore Thomas (From The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions; photo subject to copyright restrictions)

Vivien Thomas was born in 1910 in Louisiana. He graduated high school with honors in 1929, and got a job as a laboratory assistant at Vanderbilt University under the surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock. Blalock tutored Thomas in anatomy and physiology, and began teaching him complex surgical techniques, which Thomas mastered quickly. Despite the complexity and scope of the work Thomas did for Blalock, because of his race, he was classified and paid as a janitor. Thomas did not let that deter him, and he continued to assist Blalock in groundbreaking research in treating Crush syndrome, which occurs as a result of toxic chemicals released when muscles are crushed.

Blalock and Thomas began studying vascular and cardiac surgery, and exploring the concept of opening the heart to operate on it. In 1941, Blalock was offered the Chief of Surgery position at Johns Hopkins University, and he brought Thomas on board with him. In 1943, Blalock was approached by Dr. Helen Taussig about finding a surgical solution for a congenital heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot, often referred to as Blue Baby Syndrome. Over the course of the following two years, Thomas experimented on re-creating, and correcting a similar condition in dogs to prove that the congenital condition in a human could be corrected safely. In 1944, Blalock implanted the first successful Blalock-Taussig shunt, with Thomas standing on a step stool behind him, instructing him through the entire procedure. Being a Black man in the 1940s, Thomas was, of course, not only allowed to assist, but also never credited for his work.

Vivien Thomas went on to develop more cardiology surgical techniques and trained many young surgeons and lab technicians, despite not being qualified to perform surgery himself. He was paid so little for his services, that he often made money serving attendees at parties of the very man he worked alongside, Alfred Blalock. Eventually, Blalock went to bat for higher pay for Thomas with the powers that be at Johns Hopkins University, and Thomas became the University’s highest paid technician, as well as the highest paid African-American to hold any position on the University’s payroll. In his more than 15 years at Johns Hopkins as director of Surgical Research Laboratories, Thomas mentored many other young, Black lab technicians, as well as the University’s first Black cardiology resident, Dr. Levi Watkins, who implanted the first successful automatic defibrillator in 1975. In 1976, Tomas was awarded an honorary doctorate degree (though it was not a medical doctorate), and was appointed to the Johns Hopkins faculty as an instructor of surgery. He retired in 1979, and began writing his autobiography, which was published just days after he passed away in 1985 from pancreatic cancer.

Ok, so Vivien Thomas obviously contributed a lot to the world of cardiac surgery, and he did it in a time when institutional racism was the norm. He made life-saving discoveries, and huge advancements in the field, and he did it with absolutely no credit and very little pay. I don’t think anyone would argue his remarkable accomplishments or the quality of his character. Here’s why he grabbed my attention, specifically though: My oldest son was born with the congenital defect Tetralogy of Fallot 24 years ago. His first operation was at less than a day old, when he was fitted with a Blalock-Taussig shunt. Because of the efforts of Vivien Thomas, my son is alive today.

How do I celebrate Black History Month as a white girl?

Full transparency here – Black History Month is one of those things that I’ve always read about and admired quietly. If I’m being honest, there are a lot of things like that. I’ve never really been sure if it’s ok for me to celebrate Black History Month as a white girl. I think I’ve always been concerned that because it’s not my heritage, it’s disrespectful for me to take part in it – like I’m afraid to do it wrong. What I have decided in the last couple years as I have spent more and more time trying to educate myself on things outside of my comfort zone is that I would rather get it wrong and learn from my mistakes than remain in my own ignorance.

So here’s what I’m doing: I’m reading books and articles by Black authors, I’m following Black social media accounts, I’m seeking out how to better support Black owned businesses, and basically learning as much as I can about Black history, culture, and community. I’m sharing a resource every day on my social media accounts just in case someone actually follows me and might want to learn along with me.

Here’s what I’m not doing. I’m not asking Black people to educate me and answer questions I can find the answers to using my own resources. They are not my Google and it is not their job to rescue me from the whitewashed history I have experienced growing up. If I am called out for getting something wrong (as is likely), I will not take it as a personal attack, and instead use it as an opportunity to further learn.

I am also committing to continuing my education beyond February 28, because Black culture and all the things we have to learn from it can’t be fit into one month. I welcome input, constructive criticism, and productive conversation. If you’re white, I invite you to follow along and learn with me (my social media accounts are linked to this page). If you’re Black, I invite you to follow along in whatever way you feel led.

An unsolicited plug for a local business

*These are my own opinions. This is not an ad for a product or company. I was in no way solicited or paid for this post (because let’s be honest – they’d likely pay someone with a little more clout).*

Last week, I posted about stumbling across a local nonprofit business called Oluna while watching the midday local newscast (something I don’t normally do, but what a happy coincidence). The first thing that caught my attention about this company is its mission: “to strive to bring attention to menstrual health inequity by donating a year’s supply of period products to an American in need.” With all of the challenges different groups face, this was one I hadn’t ever really considered, but they’re right. Roughly half the adult human population are women that menstruate, and need hygiene supplies. While many of us don’t think twice about running to the store to pick up a box of pads or tampons, there are a lot of women that don’t have that luxury (never thought I’d consider that a luxury, but awareness is a funny thing). So I decided to give the Oluna website a peek.

The first thing you notice when you go the Oluna website is that these pants are cute! They look flowy and loose and comfortable and come in a pretty decent selection of colors and patterns. I can get on board with supporting a worthy cause pretty easily, but when my support comes with a pair of cute pants, it’s a no-brainer! So I took the plunge and ordered a pair of The Chiara pants.

Now, I’ll be honest: I was a little nervous about these pants. One thing you notice about the models on the Oluna website is that they are all very tall, very slender women, and I was concerned about how the pants would fit me being the exact opposite of tall and even less slender. Regardless, I reasoned that the worst case scenario was that I would end up with a pair of pants I couldn’t wear, but there would be a woman in a local shelter with a year’s worth of period supplies, so no one was really losing.

When the pants were delivered, the first thing I noticed about them was the fabric. The material is super soft. It reminded me of when LuLaRoe was a big thing with their buttery feeling leggings, only no one was bothering me to join their team and sell for them.

Next up: the moment of truth – how do they fit? The website size guide recommended I order a Medium. The caption of the very tall model said that she was wearing a Small, but she and I seem to be built a little bit differently, so I went with the size guide’s recommendation knowing there was a pretty good chance the pants were going to be just a little bit long. I was not wrong.

Vertical challenge aside, I was immediately in love with the way these pants felt. They’re loose and flowy, but as previously mentioned, buttery soft, so the few places they actually touch you is like being brushed by cherub wings (presumably – I’ve never even seen a cherub in person, but their wings look soft in pictures). Therefore, I was determined to make these work somehow that didn’t involve scissors or a sewing machine, because while I have many talents, altering clothing is not among them, and I was not really excited at the prospect of owning the world’s softest dust rags. So I dug into my short girl bag of tricks and tied the ankles, and BAM – new favorite pants!

Paired them with an equally flowy and soft top, and you might never see me in leggings again – and that is quite a claim!

Overall, I have nothing bad to say about the entire experience. The company has a great backstory, a worthwhile mission, and sells a high quality, comfortable product. I was able to support a local, woman-owned business, while also supporting women in need, and I got a new favorite pair of pants out of it. There are no losers today.