Dana lives in Seattle, and Tracie lives in Germany. We are businesswomen, writers and humorists. We write about life, dating, and today's modern women.
Before I pay tribute in this post, I’d like to share that the Kindle version of my book, Incompatible with Nature–Against the Odds:A Parent’s Memoir of Congenital Heart Disease as of this writing is rated:
#2 in emergency pediatrics
#4 in Heart Disease
#4 in Cardiology
To bring awareness to Congenital Heart Disease this week (Feb.7–14), and in honor of all of our all heart warriors, I am GIFTING my multiple-award-winning book until tomorrow Monday February 8, 2021 at 11:59 PM (PST). And with this, to all you Heart Warriors, MY HAND IN YOURS.
Now, to the post.
With it being national Black History month AND National Heart Month, it is THE opportunity to celebrate the life of a grandson of a slave who rose up against poverty and racism to become a cardiac surgery pioneer–one to whom thousands and thousands of people, including my son, (and me) owe their lives.
Vivien Theodore Thomas, born in Louisiana in 1910, had aspirations of attending college and becoming a doctor, but life–in part due to the Great Depression, job lay-offs and the stock market crash of 1929–got in the way.
Thankfully, thankfully and I say it again, thankfully, through a friend, Mr. Thomas got a job as a surgical research technician assisting Dr. Alfred Blalock at Vanderbilt University. On the first day of work, Mr. Thomas assisted in carrying out a surgery on a dog. Within weeks, he was performing surgeries alone.
This fact deserves a chapter of its own: Thomas was classified and paid as a janitor, despite the fact that by the mid-1930s, he was doing the work of a Postdoctoral researcher in the lab.
In nearly two years of laboratory work involving two hundred dogs, Dr. Mr. Thomas was able to replicate two of the four cardiac anomalies involved in tetralogy of Fallot, a form of congenital heart defect–and correct them. Just in case you don’t know, an anomaly is an abnormality– I had NO idea what is was when the doctors first said it to me in my son’s case. Among the dogs on whom Mr. Thomas operated, was one named Anna, who became the first long-term survivor of the operation and the only animal to have her portrait hung on the walls of Johns Hopkins where he and Dr. Blalock were working; Dr Blalock as Chief of Surgery.
Through his brilliance, (Dr.) Mr. Thomas eventually came up with a surgical technique in 1946 for improving the circulation in patients whose great vessels (the aorta and the pulmonary artery) were transposed. Viewing the almost undetectable suture line, Dr. Blalock was prompted to remark: “Vivien, this looks like something the Lord made”. (Thus, the title of the 2004 film, Something the Lord Made).
Despite the deep respect Dr. Mr. Thomas was accorded by renowned surgeons like Denton Cooley and Rowena Spencer who credited him with teaching them the surgical techniques that placed them at the forefront of medicine in the United States, as well as by the many black lab technicians, (Dr.) Mr. Thomas trained at Hopkins, he was poorly paid. He sometimes resorted to working as a bartender, often at Dr. Blalock’s parties.
To say their relationship was complicated would be putting it quite mildly. It would remain that way until the passing of Dr. Blalock in 1964.
Finally, in 1976, Johns Hopkins University bestowed Dr. Thomas with an honorary doctorate. Because of certain restrictions, he received an Honorary Doctor of Laws, rather than a medical doctorate, but it at least allowed the staff and students of Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to address him as Doctor. After having worked there for 37 years, Dr. Thomas was also finally appointed to the faculty of the School of Medicine as Instructor of Surgery.
What I know for sure is that sometimes life is not fair. Living suppressed under systematic racism is certainly one of the most injurious, damaging and detrimental pitfall of life.
As I say in my book, Incompatible with Nature–A Mother’s Story in the chapter named Defiance:
…sometimes the best-laid plans go awry and life isn’t going to allure you or anybody else with one come hither look after another and there will be days the sun won’t shine goddamn it! But what are you gonna do?
“There are cloudbursts and cloudscapes and both will take your breath away. And no matter how sorry you’re feeling for yourself, you’d better believe that nobody, but nobody makes it from A to Z in this life in a vapor of frankincense and myrrh. Sometimes we have to damn near squeeze our noses so tight they just about pop off our faces because life reeks like stinking rotten eggs. Don’t stop shaking your fist at them! The nonbelievers. The naysayers. The he-will-die sayers.
…they don’t know that you come from a long line of warriors: ‘Ain’t no givin’ up and no givin’ out.’
Dr. Thomas, because of your skin color you were suppressed and treated so very unfairly, nonetheless you maintained your humility, persevered and became a magnificent example of the contributions people of color can make to society if they would only be allowed to.
Dr. Thomas, Marc and I, and all the heart warriors of the world THANK YOU for not “givin’ up and not givin’ out.”
I urge everyone to watch the film based on this story on YouTube. Something the Lord Made. You don’t want to miss it.
Also available in German: Einen Herzschlag entfernt: https://www.amazon.de/gp/aw/d/3775158057
a young Dr. Thomas
my son, Marc