The exceptional story of that African-American laboratory technician is also a lesson on racism and perseverance.
Born in Louisiana from a carpenter as a father, Vivien Thomas received good education but his dream to enter the medical school was crushed by the great depression in the USA which engulfed his savings. He became a carpenter in a fit of pique. Then, at the age of 20, he was hired as a technician in the laboratory of the surgeon Alfred Blalock (1910-1964) at the University of Vanderbilt at Nashville in the Tennessee.
Blalock was impressed by the intelligence of Vivien Thomas and taught him the human anatomy on the field. Thomas was paid like a cleaner yet in the middle of the 30s he was already performing the equivalent of a post-doctoral research work. He carried out surgical experiments with less evolved technical equipment as compared to today.
Thomas and Dr. Blalock succeeded in proving that the crush syndrome of which a lot of patients were dying was not due to bleeding as generally admitted, but to the muscular toxins emission. After the experiment of the vascular reparation for that disease on animals without success, Blalock was able to confirm that hypothesis and he has been acknowledged worldwide. That discovery allowed saving thousands of lives during the 1939-1945 war. At the same moment, Blalock and his assistant started to experiment open-heart operations on a large scale and that was going to lead to a revolution in the medical field.
Thanks to his new reputation, Dr. Blalock accepted a position as a senior surgeon at John Hopkins, the best medical school in the USA where he asked Thomas to come along. When he arrived in Baltimore, in the University location, with his wife and his two daughters, Vivien Thomas faced an ambiance of racism and segregation worse than in the South. He suffered to find accommodation.
In 1943, Dr. Blalock was approached by Dr. Helen Taussig, a cardiologist pediatrician who was seeking for solutions to solve a complex heart problem called tetralogy of Fallot, which makes the child look blue because of the lack of oxygen in the blood, hence the term “blue baby”. She mentioned the possibility of a surgical operation by reconnecting the blood vessels. Blalock assigned Vivien Thomas to conduct research on the matter.
Thomas carried out 200 operations on dogs that he, himself, turned into blue beforehand and was able to create a connection between the blood vessels that treated the disease. He succeeded in proving that the surgery to correct the problem does not lead to death and persuaded Blalock, who carried out only one experimental surgery in this matter, to operate human beings.
Thomas adjusted surgical tools so that they could be used on human beings and on the 29th November 1944, Vivien Thomas who was 34 by then assisted Dr. Blalock, 45 by then, during a surgical operation on an 18 years old teenager. As per Blalock’s request, Thomas stood behind his shoulder and was guiding his gestures during the operation. After 3 surgeries, the method was mastered and success was met. The whole world saluted that innovation called “anastomosis of Blalock-Taussig”. Thomas was not mentioned and his contribution was ignored by Blalock and the University.
Vivien Thomas created other surgical methods and invented instruments for heart operations. Thomas taught several known worldwide surgeons. Underpaid, Vivien had a second job as a waiter and often was serving his own students at the receptions organized by Dr. Blalock. He ended up by being the highest paid technician of the University and attained an honorary PhD in 1976 before being appointed as a senior surgeon instructor. He assisted Levi Watkins when the latter developed the implantable defibrillator.
The portrait of Dr. Thomas from there was hanged next to the one of Dr. Blalock in the premises that bears his name. Schools and scholarships for minorities bear his name today. Morgan State University, a University yet supposed to welcome and promote Black people professional experience refused to consider Vivien Thomas’ experience and asked him to go through the normal process to complete the medical course in the 40s. When he realized that he would not complete his studies before the age of 50, he abandoned his dream. Vivien Thomas died of a pancreas cancer in 1985.
The 2004 movie “Something the Lord made” was based on Thomas’ true story with Mos Def. May the story of that great Kamit (Black) serve us as lesson, especially for those who have not yet opened their eyes on kamitophobia.
By: Lisapo ya Kama ©