The Men Who Gambled with Death and Saved Childen. You can’t make this stuff up.


It was a day of uncertainty.

When Dr. Alfred Blalock walked into the Johns Hopkins operating room, he knew he was the only person dressed in white who believed he could actually do what he was attempting to do.

No one had ever done it before him.

Perhaps no one ever would.

The medical experts did not believed in him.

Some said he was reckless.

Some just called him crazy.

Most in the room had come to see a man commit murder in the name of medicine and science.

imagesDr. Blalock looked down at the child lying on the table before him.

Only a few months old.

Weighing nine pounds.

Blue babies were almost always destined to die.

This one would be no exception.

A nurse handed him a scalpel.

Sweat creased his brow.

The silence was as thick as the fear in the room.

Dr. Blalock glanced around him.

“Where’s Vivien?” he asked.

He would not begin without Vivien Thomas standing behind his right shoulder.

Blalock would be the doctor of record, but he would not be holding the scalpel with such confidence if he had not been for Vivien. The two had been through a lot together. The next two hours, maybe longer, would be their most treacherous and delicate journey. They were gambling with death, and only they believed they could win.

In 1944, twenty-five percent of all Blue Babies died before the age of one, and seventy percent of them would die before their tenth birthday. The condition was a congenital defect involving a number of abnormalities of the heart.

Blood was diverted past the lungs.

Vital oxygen could not be transported throughout the body.

Babies simply turned blue.

No oxygen.

Little if any chance to live.

For the past two years, Vivien Thomas, working with Dr. Blalock, had painstakingly developed a procedure that would join an artery leaving the heart to an artery leading to the lungs.

The blood was given a second chance to work its magic.

The blood was given a second chance to spread oxygen throughout the body.

The operation could not be performed at all, however, without delicate instruments needed to perform the correct heart surgery on such tiny newborns.

Such instruments did not exist.

Vivien Thomas designed and created them himself.

He was ready. Dr. Blalock was ready.

Whether a baby lived or died depended on them.

“Where’s Vivien?” the doctor asked again.

“I’m here, sir” came the soft, solemn voice behind him.

Blalock smiled. He could begin.

Everything he did would depend on Vivien, and Vivien Thomas was the only one in the room who had never been to college.

The young man had dreamed of a career in medicine. But the bank crash of 1929 had wiped out his entire savings. The economic depression suffocated the country.

There were few jobs.

His dream faded.

Vivien Thomas was working as a janitor, sweeping floors at Vanderbilt University, when Dr. Blalock noticed him and immediately believed that the young man had so much more potential.

Vivien was a quick study.

He had skilled hands. They were hands blessed by God, the doctor said.

Vivien worked tirelessly and diligently, and Blalock, without any hesitation, hired him to serve as his personal surgical assistant. In time, Vivien could perform surgical procedures as well as anyone.

But this operation would be different.

This operation would involve incisions in the heart.

The doctor’s a fool.

That was the general consensus.

So is his assistant.

No one argued.

Cardiac surgery was impossible.

Don’t ever mess with the heart.

Dr. Blalock nodded at Vivien, took a deep breath, and messed with the heart of a nine-pound baby.

Everyone expected the worse. They had come to see a baby die. They were sure of it.

The only time Blalock spoke, his words were directed to Vivien Thomas.

The only time he asked a question, Vivien was there with the answer.

Blalock finished his procedure and stepped back.

The baby was breathing, and his blue face was slowly turning pink.

Vivien Thomas as a young surgical assistant
Vivien Thomas as a young surgical assistant

Vivien Thomas would say: “You have never seen anything so dramatic. It was almost a miracle.”

Maybe it was a miracle.

Together, the doctor and his surgical assistant performed more than two hundred operations during that first year. The number would grow to thousands. Blue Babies were no longer among the hopeless, the condemned.

Dr. Blalock received the acclaim throughout the medical community, but Dr. Blalock always gave recognition to the man who stood behind his right shoulder and diligently guided him through each procedure.

He would not go into surgery without him, a man described as “the most un-talked about, unappreciated, unknown giant” in the field of medicine.

Vivien Thomas was easily forgotten or overlooked.

Vivien Thomas was black.

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