August 31

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No longer hidden from history: The Life of Vivien Thomas, Medical Pioneer by Therese Nagi

Hidden historical pioneers who overcame great odds grab my attention, but not usually medical ones. However, Gwendolyn Hooks’s picture book Tiny Stitches – The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas, hooked me with Thomas’s perseverance to realize his dream.

The biography begins with illustrator, Colin Bootman’s muted water color of a studious Thomas in a white lab coat holding a surgical instrument before the first open-heart surgery for children. Thomas designed the surgical needles on the operating tray. The next page shows Thomas at work in his father’s carpentry shop, where he assisted his father. Vivien Thomas dreamed of being a doctor and some of his earnings went into his bank account for college. In 1929, the stock market crashed and Thomas lost his college savings when many banks closed.

Although, The Great Depression brought financial hardship for his father’s business, Thomas was determined to follow his dream of studying medicine. Fortunately, a friend told him of a job opening at Vanderbilt University’s medical school. Thomas applied and Dr. Alfred Blalock interviewed him. Blalock recognized Thomas’s quick mind and hired him. Thomas thrived at the research lab doing lab experiments and along with assisting Dr. Blalock with surgery.

In 1941, Vivien Thomas’s life changed when Blalock was offered a job at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Blalock accepted the offer only if Vivien Thomas could be hired too. When Thomas relocated to Baltimore, Hooks’s frank text and Bootman’s powerful pictures shows the discrimination and segregation Thomas suffered as a black man.

Dr. Blalock assigned Vivien Thomas to do research for Dr. Helen Taussig, a pediatric cardiologist. Taussig’s called her tiny patients “blue babies” because their heart problems turned their skin a bluish color. Thomas researched and discovered the four defects in the “blue babies” hearts’. Next, Thomas spent months experimenting and working on a surgical solution. He perfected the procedure and crafted the surgical needles for a child’s chest. In 1944, Dr. Blalock performed the first successful children’s open-heart surgery, with Thomas guiding him through the operation. Dr. Blalock and Dr. Taussig’s surgical technique was heralded in the press, but Thomas’s contribution was never mentioned.

Vivien Thomas’s research and surgical procedures pioneered open-heart surgery for children. Johns Hopkins acknowledged Thomas’s contributions and awarded him a medical degree in 1976. Thomas’s legacy has saved many children who suffer from heart problems, including Jimmy Kimmel’s infant son, Billy.

After finishing this picture book, I wanted others to learn about Vivien Thomas. I looked where Tiny Stitches might be needed. I searched for the book in my local library and they didn’t have it. Then I requested that the library order it and they did. An elementary school teacher in Detroit didn’t have Tiny Stitches for her classroom library, so I bought and mailed her one. I have my own book and share it with fellow writers.

Gwendolyn Hooks is a former middle-school math teacher and has written early reader books. Ms. Hooks spent six years researching and writing Vivien Thomas’s story. This picture book biography provides an alternative to dense chapter books for readers ages 7 to 12. It also is a resource for students who may have family members born with heart problems.

Therese Nagi is a retired ESL teacher. She is writing a non-fiction picture book manuscript about a little-known pioneer botanist, Alice Eastwood. During the 1908 San Francisco earthquake, Alice Eastwood saved almost 10,000 rare plants from the California Academy of Sciences. She lives in Mountain View, California with her family.