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.

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.