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May 9, 2015

The first successful heart surgery in the US was performed by a black physician, Daniel Hale Williams, in 1893 when he gave a stabbing victim a new chance for life. But for decades to follow there were still many taboos about operating on the human heart.

During the 1930’s some stunning breakthroughs in heart surgery were born of the colleagueship of two men, Dr. Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas, brought together in an amazing story of a shared karmic mission for the world. Both were from the apartheid southern United States. They were men of their time bound by the dehumanizing prejudice that prevailed. Blalock was a talented, ambitious young white surgeon, set on making a name in heart surgery. Thomas was a black man whose high aspiring dreams of becoming a doctor were dashed when his savings were lost in the Depression bank failures.

Blalock was looking for an assistant to help with heart research surgery on dogs and advertised for a carpenter, hoping to find a lab assistant with high level manual dexterity. It was Thomas who answered the ad, and proved to not only have gifted hands and exquisite dexterity, but an inquiring and capable intelligence and a passion for medicine. They became a research team, inspiring one another in their laboratory to ever new breakthroughs. Some of those discoveries saved millions of lives in WW11. Yet outside their shared workplace, Thomas had to endure the appalling indignities accorded a black man then. Even Blalock added insults Vivien had to overcome. Vivien’s salary was so small and he had a family to support, he also took further work as a servant for Blalock’s many lavish dinner parties.

The extraordinary story of this karmic relationship that would subsequently effect so many lives in the future, is quite truly depicted in the film Something the Lord Made. My husband, Gordon, had ‘chanced‘ to order it just weeks before his emergency open heart surgery and we had watched it together. So it was Vivien Thomas’ story that I was sharing with my children, Cameron and Lauren, as we were waiting during Gordon’s operation.

We had come to the patio of Sutter Memorial hospital to be together while our husband/father went through this threshold experience. Lauren, on seeing trash strewn across the courtyard from careless and preoccupied diners, had gotten the trash bag from the can and cleaned the place up. Admirable community consciousness in that action and then we sat to wait together.

While Gordon’s heart was being lifted in the skilled hands of his surgical team and given a new aortic valve and while he was on heart by pass, I shared with them this moving drama from the annals of a large medical research community whose lives had led them to the techniques and knowledge that were being bestowed upon Gordon in those very moments.

The three of us shook our heads in pained realization of how Vivien Thomas was treated in the University laboratories where he had worked, Paid lowest wages as a janitor, having to use the service entrance to come into the building, unable to even associate in the cafeteria with Blalock, insulted by other doctors as his ‘nigger’, this great man persevered to follow his passions of heart research at the John Hopkins lab.

Then the big moment came. Blaock, impatient to show the world what they had learned, dared to perform a heart operation on a blue baby. But Thomas was far more skilled and experienced in the procedures than Blalock, so during the surgery a unprecedented event occurred. Vivien Thomas, a black man was put in surgical scrubs and called to stand by Blaock in the operating theatre and talk him through the operation. It was a shocking, unprecedented, and unheard of position for a black man at that time.

The baby lived, the surgery was successful. It was hailed around the world and Blalock made a hero. Thomas was ignored. Blalock preened in the limelight accepting the prizes without the slightest mention or credit to his partner and their years of research together. The humiliation was unbearable and Thomas left to try to pursue other means of making a living. But in the end, he and his wife recognized his passion lay in the laboratories and he took up again the cross of the scathing prejudice he had to endure there to once more to return to John Hopkin’s University laboratory.

Thomas would outlive Blalock and they were karmically joined to the end of their lives. Recognized at last for his outstanding skills, Vivien Thomas was made the head of the John Hopkins laboratory. He became an admired and respected teacher of surgeons– many surgeons. His magnificent hands, his tempered and suffering heart and soul, so deeply inscribed with human endurance and compassion, made him an extraordinary human being to lead future doctors to their calling.

This is a story of karma, of human passion, mission and putting skills in service of life and humanity at its best. How many of us who have had heart surgery now literally owe our lives to the whole medical community, and definitely owe thanks to the great spirit of a man who was so insulted and denied in his human dignity, yet took up the cross of suffering and creative karmic colleagueship with Blalock to leave such a legacy of healing for so many? This is a story of a great mission fulfilled.


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