With little money and only a high school diploma, an African-American lab technician named Vivien Thomas in 1944 helped pioneer a groundbreaking heart operation at Johns Hopkins that saved thousands of children's lives and ushered in the modern era of cardiac surgery.
The story of Thomas and his 34-year partnership with The Johns Hopkins Hospital's chief surgeon, Alfred Blalock, is told in the television documentary Partners of the Heart. The film, narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, is scheduled to air at 9 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 10, as part of PBS' American Experience series.
It will be screened for medical campus employees at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 15, in Hurd Hall, East Baltimore campus.
At Hopkins, Thomas and Blalock spent hundreds of hours rehearsing and developing an operation to repair the hearts of "blue babies," so named because a congenital heart defect called tetralogy of Fallot left them blue from lack of oxygen. With Thomas advising over his shoulder, Blalock successfully performed the first procedure on Nov. 29, 1944, on 15-month-old Eileen Saxon.
As head of Hopkins' surgical research laboratory, Thomas helped teach two generations of heart surgeons at a time when he could not become one.
"Partners documents the incredible development of the "blue baby" operation, which fits perfectly in the Hopkins belief of sharing 'knowledge for the world,'" says Levi Watkins, professor of cardiac surgery, who trained with Thomas and later performed the world's first implant of an automatic defibrillator in a human. "Equally as incredible, the film documents what a racial partnership could do during a time in American history when such partnerships were scarce. This is the significance of Partners of the Heart and what it means to my heart."
The producers of the film, Duke Media and Spark Media of Washington, spent more than 10 years putting together the film, including spending many hours at Johns Hopkins poring through medical archives and interviewing employees.
J. Alex Haller, professor emeritus of surgery, who studied under both men as a medical student and resident, says, "The film very nicely documents the professional and personal relationships between Vivien Thomas and his chief, Dr. Blalock, showing the importance of each player."
Funding for Partners of the Heart comes from the
National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting.