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.

There are no resolutions here

It’s New Year’s Day, and this year is a weird one. There are plenty of posts out there that will break down in detail what a mess 2020 was (and don’t get me wrong, it was), but this is not that post. There are also many posts talking about finding the blessings amidst the destruction of 2020 (of which there are plenty if you bother to look), but this is not that post either. Though there is much value in reflection, and we’ll need to do a lot of reflecting to even begin to heal from the events of last year, this is a post looking forward to the year upcoming. But instead of resolutions and specific goals, I am choosing instead to focus on improving specific areas of my life through habits and systems. There are five areas in my life that I have decided to focus on for growth this year.

Focus 1: Physical Health

First, let me emphasize this focus has nothing to do with weight loss. I haven’t weighed myself in months, and I have no intention to do so anytime soon. It’s not even about how my clothes fit or what the mirror shows. It’s all about how I feel. For example, I know by listening to my body that I am sensitive to sugar. Too much in the morning makes me nauseous, and too much any time gives me a headache. I also know from experience that sodium effects me pretty strongly. My hands and feet swell when I am the slightest bit dehydrated and have had anything too salty. I know I feel my best when I eat real food that is prepared fresh and hasn’t been in a package for who knows how long. The solution to this problem seems pretty obvious: just eat healthier, home cooked food. Ironically, I actually enjoy cooking. But often by the end of the day, I’m tired, and I don’t feel like it, and it’s really easy to talk my family into ordering takeout (we are a family of loving enablers). But in the interest of focusing on taking care of my physical health, I am putting in place a system that at 5:00 each evening, I will cook dinner.

Of course, physical health isn’t only about food. Movement is important too. I go through pretty drastic hills and valleys with regard to exercise. I’m either working out 6 days a week and feeling amazing, or I haven’t gotten off the couch in a week with no current desire to do so ever again (one guess as to which extreme I’m at now – hint: I’m currently lying in a recliner watching my 4th Marvel movie of the day, typing on my phone because my laptop is charging in another room). The challenge with this one is finding the best time to do it. If I start my day with movement, I feel great, but then I feel like my day is running late. If I wait until the end of the day, it’s likely something will get in the way and I won’t get to it. So the system I’m putting in place for this one is at 4:00 each afternoon, I will move my body for 30 minutes. This could be a jog around the neighborhood or a workout in the garage. Hopefully before too long it can be a gym workout, but right now that’s not in my comfort zone due to Covid.

Focus 2: Mental Health

A lot of the mental aspect of health can be improved by improving physical health, so if I can get that under control, I feel like I’m that much closer to better mental health. Unfortunately, I have historically focused specifically on one or the other meaning that the one that wasn’t the focus at the time only got as much benefit as the other provided. For example, in times that mental health was the focus, I tended to make sure that I was prioritizing rest, meditating regularly, and being kind to myself without putting any real emphasis on nutrition or movement. My mental health systems are small, but impactful. Most of these practices are how I start my day. I will list 5 things to I am thankful for first thing. I will not check my phone for the first hour I am awake. I will meditate and reflect each morning before I start my “work” day (more on that in a minute). I will continue to meet with my counselor every other week.

Focus 3: My Work

This is a tough one because it doesn’t yet have a specific focus or determined direction. That’s why I’m putting these systems in place – to establish that direction. I have joined author Kathi Lipp’s ministry team as an intern to learn more about how to build my brand and put myself out there. In joining this team, I have joined the Writer’s Collective which is a program that I feel will really strengthen my progress toward my goals. The program is broken down into three categories: create, build, and serve.

3a: Create

Creating for me means making progress toward writing my memoir. The plan is for this manuscript is to follow my evolution of a mother through my life as a pregnant teen, teen mom, single mom, married mom, and now that my kids are mostly grown, as a self aware individual. I will spend 90 minutes daily, Monday through Friday, working on some aspect of this manuscript.

3b: Build

In addition to writing, I am also putting a system in place to spend 90 minutes each day building my platform and community. This will be useful in hopefully increasing my readership, but also in attracting an audience that will actually find value in what I hope to offer in terms of hope and support and acceptance.

3c: Serve

The final 90 minute block in my “work” day is dedicated to serving my community. Right now this will be primarily through blog posts, but as I get more comfortable reaching out and as it becomes safer to interact in person post Covid, I would like for service to be feet on the ground serving marginalized communities wherever I can.

As I mentioned before, all things “work” related are pretty vague. The systems are there, but the projected outcome is not. Not yet anyway. If nothing else, I’ll be learning.

Focus 4: Personal Growth

Another pretty nondescript category, but not any less important than the others. I would like to set aside time to discover new interests and rediscover interests I have set aside. I mentioned earlier that I enjoy cooking. I’d like to remind myself that regularly and make a habit of it. I used to play piano, and while I hated it as a child (to be fair – my teacher was really mean – even my mom will back me up on that), I wish I still played. We got rid of our piano about 5 years ago, but I think maybe I’ll pick up a keyboard and try to get back into it. Part of me would like to learn to dance, though that sounds terrifying. Regardless, I plan to set aside 30 minutes per day for some sort of personal growth activity.

Focus 5: Spiritual Growth

This one is a little bit scary for me as my spiritual upbringing swings between my step-dad’s extreme Old Testament, fire and brimstone beliefs and nonexistent avoidance. I’m in a place now where I’d like to learn actual truth. I have a hard time accepting a God that is ok with things like misogyny and white supremacy and homophobia, yet sends his son to teach love and peace and acceptance. I need more information. I need reconciliation. Last year, I started to get involved in the Daughters of Abraham and was looking forward to learning more not only from women from my own faith background, but women from Jewish and Muslim backgrounds as well. Covid put a damper on that though, and it fell by the wayside with so many other intentions. I plan to get more involved with the group this year – even if it is virtually. I also virtually attended the Evolving Faith conference this year, and found myself among a group of seemingly like minded people. My hope is that in the not-too-distant future, I’ll have the opportunity to make some connections in person and find a church community that I can plug in to and learn from.

So there you have it. No actual resolutions, but plenty of areas to focus on growth. I’m seeking out accountability resources to keep me from losing focus, and the only real goal is growth. Here’s to 2021.

Go Ahead and Have Dessert

Body image and diet culture are topics that have been heavy on my mind lately, largely due to the fact that they are in our faces constantly. You don’t really even realize it until you start to look for it, but pay attention to conversations with friends or family, advertisements you hear on television or radio or see on social media, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll be exposed to something that addresses body image and diet culture on more than one occasion. It’s so normalized that we don’t even think about it until something comes out of left field to make us rethink how we approach these things.

In my case, that something is a 12-year-old boy. My youngest son has never been lean and athletic like his older brother; nor has he ever had a metabolism that burns higher than it consumes like his oldest brother (due to heart defects that require his body to work a little harder, though we’ve heard “he’s so lucky he can eat whatever he wants and not gain a pound” so much I could scream). My youngest was the cherubic baby with round cheeks and thigh rolls that just made you want to squeeze them. As he got older, he “slimmed up” as toddlers do, but has always had a bigger build; “husky” if we’re following clothing labels. He has never been medically labeled “overweight” or “unhealthy,” and he has always followed a steady curve along the pediatric growth chart. And he has never been bothered by any of it… until about a year and a half ago when he fairly rapidly gained 10-15 pounds. His nutrition didn’t change. His activity level didn’t change. I was not concerned until he expressed concern. Since he is a very fact reliant kid, I did some research and confirmed what I had been trying to explain to him: This is normal. It happens to most kids in the year or so before puberty fully kicks in, and it’s completely necessary for normal and healthy body development. He is healthy and his body shape and size is unimportant.

This should have been a pretty open and shut case. Problem identified, problem explained, not a problem. But of course it wasn’t. Between the media and middle school peers, my son got so self-conscious about his weight that he started trying to hide his body, being very hesitant to take his shirt off to swim (this was a child that didn’t wear a shirt for probably 5 years of his life). Eventually, he dropped out of Boy Scouts – which he loved – because other boys made fun of his weight. That made me incredibly sad, but what started scaring me was his evolving relationship with food. He started obsessing over food nutrition labels; and while this may not seem like a bad thing (we should be educated about what’s in our food, right?), when any activity hits an obsessive level, it can be pretty dangerous – especially when you don’t really know what you’re looking for. Suddenly I found myself fielding questions like “how many milligrams of sodium is too high for lunch” and “are there too many calories in this soup for me to have a little more?” Soup! It is not ok for a 12-year-old child to be concerned about whether or not the soup he is eating has too many calories!

We started having some pretty tough conversations about trusting our bodies, and how this is something that is not intuitive anymore, but absolutely should be. Our bodies know what they need. They know when they’re hungry and when they’re sated. They know what kinds of food they need. And once upon a time before diet culture and convenience foods, people ate intuitively, because there was no other way. We talked about how health and thinness are not the same thing, and no one should be ashamed of how their body looks because all bodies are different and not an indicator of a person’s character. I tried to explain to him that calories are a unit of energy and not to something to be obsessing over, and it’s ok if he wants to have ice cream in the evening. A 12-year-old kid should be able to enjoy food without constantly beating themself up over it. We all should.

Finally, what kind of parent would I be if I didn’t take some accountability for this whole situation? I could go on about how I don’t know why my child would be so self conscious because I have never obsessed about any of my children’s weight, and that would be true; but what is also true is that he has no doubt heard me comment on my own weight, or likely even on someone else’s. He has heard me say hateful things about my body, or comment on how much weight I’ve gained or need to lose, or turn down treats because as much as I would love to indulge – I don’t need the calories. He has seen and heard me do all the things I am telling him not to.

So I’m actively trying to change the conversation – not just where it concerns him, but overall. I’m making conscious decisions in how I talk about food and bodies – mine, his, and anyone else’s. When we started planning the menu for Thanksgiving dinner, I saw him start to get concerned when I mentioned the desserts. He was already trying to decide which of the three to choose. We went back to the conversation about listening to his body and not eating past when his body says it’s no longer hungry (which is not the same as full), and then, when your body is ready for dessert – go ahead and have a small amount of all three. You don’t have to choose, and you don’t have to feel shame for it.