Partners of the Heart, an eloquent and moving PBS documentary on a pioneering medical research team at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, opens with a striking scene.
The setting is an old-fashioned operating room (circa 1944). A row of nurses and doctors garbed in white gowns and masks surrounds the operating table. A surgeon is working intently on an anesthetized child.
But behind the surgeon, standing on some kind of raised platform, there's another man in a white gown whispering in the surgeon's ear. As the camera closes in on the tableau, it can be seen that the surgeon is white and the man behind him is black.
Partners of the Heart, which premieres tonight as part of the American Experience series, is the story of that white surgeon and the black man whispering in his ear. The part of the story about the white surgeon, Dr. Alfred Blalock, is very good. But the part about the black man, Vivien T. Thomas, is flat-out great.
"The surgeon held the scalpel, but another man was guiding him through the procedure. Together they would change the course of modern medicine," the narrator says.
"Alfred Blalock is remembered as a pioneer in cardiac surgery. At his side was Vivien Thomas who opened new paths for healing at a time when most doors were closed to him."
As the narration ends, Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., a current member of the Johns Hopkins Hospital team, appears on camera to sound the case Partners of the Heart ultimately makes for Thomas: "I think he is the most un-talked-about, unappreciated, unknown giant in the African-American community. What he helped facilitate impacted people all over the world."
Thomas' story starts in Nashville in the 1920s with a teen-ager dreaming of being a medical doctor. The film immediately wins your trust by taking the time to explain the counterintuitive truth that such a dream for someone like Thomas was not unrealistic.
Thomas, the son of a carpenter, grew up in a solidly middle-class African-American enclave within black Nashville, which had its own doctors, lawyers, educators and other professionals. Thomas graduated from a high school that prepared its students well for college.
But, unfortunately for Thomas, he came of college age in 1930 just as the Great Depression hit, and all the money he had saved in seven summers of working as a carpenter's aide was lost when the banks closed. He was lucky that summer to find the job he did as a janitor in a laboratory of the Vanderbilt University Medical School. The man who hired him was the new director of the lab, Dr. Alfred Blalock.
While Thomas' job title was janitor, in practice he quickly became Blalock's research assistant. In 1941, one of Blalock's conditions for coming to Hopkins was that Thomas also be hired as his surgical research assistant. The two men worked together until Blalock's death in 1964.
The 1944 operating room scene on which the film opens is a re-creation of the first "blue baby" operation, a daring form of heart surgery developed by Thomas, Blalock and Dr. Helen Taussig that would save the lives of thousands of children who suffered from a lack of oxygen in their blood. (The oxygen deficiency made them look blue.)
Blalock would not start the first operation without Thomas, who had perfected the surgical technique and invented some of the very instruments used, standing at his side. Blalock quickly became famous for his ability to turn blue babies into glowing pink ones. For Thomas, recognition was mostly delayed.
Even though Thomas rose to the point where he was training surgeons at Hopkins, for a long time, he couldn't eat in the hospital cafeteria because of the color of his skin. And to make ends meet on the salary he earned, he often tended bar at private parties thrown by Blalock - with some of the very doctors Thomas taught as the guests he served.
In the end, this is what makes Partners of the Heart such an impressive film. The relationship between Blalock and Thomas is a fascinating one that has as much to tell us about race as it does medicine. The story of these two men transcending many of the racial boundaries of their times to help humanity is a happy story to tell, and the filmmakers could have limited themselves to this inspirational tale and still had a fine film.
But they also included the not-so-happy tale of the racial restraints cruelly limiting Thomas' ability to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
Typical of the film's commitment to telling a fuller truth is the final set of ironic facts about Thomas' career at Hopkins. He retired in 1976 as supervisor of surgical research labs and instructor emeritus of surgery. The university awarded him an honorary doctorate.
What a perfect ending to the story of the teen-ager in Nashville dreaming of one day becoming a doctor.
Except, as the film goes on to explain, the honorary degree Hopkins actually gave Thomas was a doctorate of law. (The university does not award honorary medical degrees.)
With PBS choosing to air Partners of the Heart in February, the film is automatically contextualized to some extent as a Black History Month film. Indeed, it is being promoted as such by PBS.
There is nothing wrong with that, except the potential the label might have of limiting it in some viewers' minds. Partners of the Heart is not just a great Black History Month film, it is a great any month of the year film.