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.