Through the story of an unsung African-American hero of medicine whose work led to numerous advances in cardiac surgery, a Johns Hopkins professor and a Washington film company are encouraging more minority students to enter health and science careers.
Using the life of Vivien Thomas as his example, cardiac surgery professor and civil rights activist Levi Watkins talked last week in Turner Auditorium to 200 Baltimore high school students about overcoming barriers, pursuing careers in science and medicine and the importance of mentoring and motivation.
Thomas, former supervisor of Hopkins' surgical laboratories, for 35 years, developed and perfected surgical techniques on laboratory animals and taught his trade to surgeons, medical students and residents despite having only a high school diploma. Many of the surgeons he taught, like Denton Cooley of the Texas Heart Institute, became pioneers in their fields. With Thomas' help, Watkins went on to perform the world's first implant of a defibrillator in a human.
Thomas' story is showcased in a documentary called Partners of the Heart, produced by Spark Media, a Washington, D.C.-based production and outreach company specializing in issues of social change. Highlights of the movie were shown at the event, which was co-sponsored by Spark and Maryland Public Television. More than 10 years in the making, the movie traces Thomas' life and his unusual partnership with the late Hopkins surgeon in chief Alfred Blalock.
In the 1940s, Thomas and Blalock spent hundreds of hours rehearsing and developing an operation that was the first to successfully repair the hearts of "blue babies," so named because their congenital heart defects left them blue from lack of oxygen. The successful treatment of these infants at Hopkins opened the field of congenital heart surgery.
Partners of the Heart is scheduled to air nationally on PBS during the spring or summer.
Funding for the movie comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In conjunction with the film, Spark Media is launching an educational campaign geared to minority and disadvantaged youth interested in science and medicine. The film's themes include the importance of resilience, hard work and perseverance and will be at the core of the campaign, which is sponsored by the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation.