"Until then," said The Sun, "surgeons had been wary of working near the heart because of the problems of keeping the blood flowing. Surgical procedures had to be done in less than three minutes. There was no heart-lung machine then."
A career high
Some days there were three corrective surgeries.
"People came out of the walls," he said, "bringing in their children with no appointments. The Hopkins wasn't set up for it, and the labs weren't geared for that kind of service."
Often working 12- to 16-hour days on blood tests, Thomas confessed that, after a year of such a frenetic pace, he nearly became a patient at Hopkins himself.
Dr. Alan Woods Jr., now retired after a 43-year career at Hopkins, where he worked with Thomas, said from his Guilford home the the other day, "He was one of the best natural surgeons I ever saw in my life.
"The things he could do with his fingers were simply amazing. During surgery, standing behind Dr. Blalock, he'd advise, 'No, no the stitch goes there, it goes this way.' He really was an extremely talented man."
While Thomas later became supervisor of surgical research laboratories at Hopkins and trained hundreds of surgeons, he was himself never allowed to operate on a human.
Both Blalock and Taussig were showered with prizes, while Thomas had to wait decades for the recognition that was so deservedly his.
In 1969, a group of former Hopkins surgical residents, called the "Old Hands Club," commissioned a portrait of Thomas that would be presented to the university and hospital. In 1976, he was awarded an honorary doctorate.
He wrote his autobiography, "Pioneering Research in Surgical Shock and Cardiovascular Surgery," which was being published by the University of Pennsylvania Press at the time of his death in 1985.
At the formal presentation of the portrait Feb. 27, 1971, Dr. C. Rollins Hanlon, director of the American College of Surgeons, said, "From him I learned the valuable surgical lesson that experimental procedures which seemed nearly impossible to execute when first tried might ultimately be performed with ridiculous ease and economy of time and assistants, after the separate steps had been mastered fully. Vivien Thomas was and is a technician in the finest sense of the term, as all well-rounded surgeons must be technicians."
Today, his portrait hangs in the Johns Hopkins Hospital beside that of Blalock, who was his benefactor and most of all his friend.
--Frederick N. Rasmussen
Originally published May 25, 1997
'Technician' helped Dr. Alfred Blalock and Dr. Helen Taussig develop the 'blue baby' operation at Johns Hopkins
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