The Surgical Technician Who Saved Thousands

Kamie Berry | September 30th, 2017

It was difficult for African Americans to get into medical school in the 1930s, especially in the southern United States, but that is exactly what Vivien Thomas wanted to do. He had received a good education at his high school in Nashville and began saving money so he could fulfil his dreams.

He found work as a carpenter at Vanderbilt University, and enrolled as a premedical student at the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College. Then the Great Depression hit in 1929, and Thomas was laid off.

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Thomas could no longer afford paying for his education, but he managed to find work as a surgical research technician at Vanderbilt, working for Dr. Alfred Blalock, a respected surgeon. Sadly, Thomas was only paid a janitor’s salary because of the racism that was so prevalent at the time. However, he was doing work on the same level as someone with a Ph.D. Some of his early research on the causes of shock helped save the lives of thousands of soldiers during World War II.

When Dr. Blalock transferred to Johns Hopkins Medical School, he had become so dependent on Thomas’ skill that he insisted he move with him. It was during his tenure at Johns Hopkins that Dr. Blalock and Dr. Helen Taussig were credited with developing a surgical technique for blue baby syndrome, a genetic defect that causes a lack of oxygen in the blood. However, the true hero behind the cure was none other than Vivien Thomas.

Thomas had spent numerous hours experimenting on dogs to develop the surgical procedure. He also spent time in Dr. Taussig’s lab, examining heart specimens. It was his idea to divert blood past the constriction in a major blood vessel that caused the syndrome.

During the first blue baby surgery, Blalock relied heavily on Thomas’ help. Thomas stood right next to Blalock, and the doctor kept asking his technician if he was performing it correctly. Thomas continued to advise on the surgeries, sometimes working up to 16 hours a day as he also had to perform his research duties for Blalock.

Vivien Thomas was not recognized at the time for his contributions to the groundbreaking surgical technique. He also trained hundreds of surgeons as the supervisor of surgical research at Johns Hopkins, but he was never allowed to perform an operation himself. He never got to achieve his dream of attending medical school.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that a group of Thomas’ former students decided that he should be recognized for what he had done. His portrait was commissioned and still hangs at the Johns Hopkins Hospital next to that of Blalock. In 1976, he received an honorary doctorate.

Vivien Thomas died in 1985 at the age of 75. Though he achieved much in his lifetime, one has to wonder how many more people he might have saved had he been able to go to medical school and realize his dream of becoming a surgeon himself.

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