A Vital Sign


Given Bill Cosby's explosive comments about the misplaced values among the African American lower class, the many impassioned protests against the MGM film Soul Plane and the recent 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to desegregate the nation's public schools, HBO's latest film coup Something the Lord Made, which debuted May 30, could not have come at a better time.

The largely unknown story of an African American carpenter's collaboration with a Northern-educated white doctor to pioneer the field of cardiac surgery during the era of Jim Crow is a bold and necessary undertaking that underscores yet another quiet yet vital contribution of African Americans. As Vivien T. Thomas, "raptor" Mos Def delivers an award-worthy performance in his portrayal of the soft-spoken yet dignified Southern lab technician who aids Dr. Alfred Blalock (Golden Globe- and Emmy-winner Alan Rickman), a respected white surgeon, in the extraordinary "blue baby" operation (medically known as Blalock-Taussig Shunt) that saved the lives of babies suffering from "Tetralogy of Fallot," a congenital heart malformation that robs the blood of oxygen.

"Mos Def does a great job," says Dr. Koco Eaton, a physician for the Major League Baseball team the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and "nephew" of Thomas. "I think Denzel Washington needs to be put on alert that Mos Def is going to be the next black actor to win an Academy Award. He is just incredible and this film really shows the depth of the characters that he can play, because my uncle was a reserved and quiet yet dignified Southern gentleman and Mos pulls it off. You get the sense that he is understated but yet strong in his convictions."

Something the Lord Made is far from a vanity piece, taking care not to overstate Thomas' contribution to the Blalock-Taussig Shunt. "Certainly, I think, one of the significant things was, in fact, the research element of it," emphasizes Dr. Gary H. Gibbons, Cardiovascular Research Institute Director and Professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. "That's what Vivien Thomas was, the director, or supervisor of Dr. Blalock's research laboratory. And that was really critical because they really innovated a new technique and so, in order to innovate something obviously you don't want to practice on the first patient. And so that means that you have to develop approaches in an experimental laboratory that you think will apply to take care of the patient. It is clear that Vivien Thomas was instrumental in setting up the models and the approaches that Dr. Blalock could practice on before he had the first case some 60 years ago. So, to have someone like Vivien Thomas was clearly critical to this innovation and it is very special that he didn't have medical training on his own."

But such work was even lost on members of Thomas' own family. "I really didn't fully appreciate his accomplishments until I was accepted in medical school and then I had a chance to understand what his contribution was to medicine," shares Dr. Eaton, who is biologically a cousin to Thomas but knew him as an uncle. "So it's kind of one of those things where your uncle or relative is almost the equivalent of Michael Jordan but you never watched basketball."

He further adds, "When I was in medical school, it was an awakening. It was almost a rediscovery of a man. Here he was with his portrait hanging in the hallway, so you got an appreciation. But then as I started to understand medicine and understand the science behind it; then I got a true interpretation of this genius."

Thomas' significance wasn't lost on Gabrielle Union, who plays Clara, Thomas' wife. At a special screening at the Morehouse School of Medicine, she shared with the audience that, thanks to her husband's encouragement, she did not miss this screening even though her father-in-law passed just days before. "It is what my dad would want," she recounted her husband's words to the audience. "He was so proud of you for being a part of this project to begin with and telling this man's story. You couldn't possibly miss it."

No one should miss this story, filled with the very values Cosby insisted that some of us no longer hold dear. Adversity, such as losing the money he saved to attend college, did not stop Vivien Thomas from taking advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves in a medical environment. He educated himself so well that he was at home around trained medical experts despite being devalued by the white world, and told that what he was able to do in a lab was nothing short of a miracle for a "colored" man. With the support of his wife, he moved his family from the comforts of Nashville to the harshness of Baltimore. He rose above society's limitations with dignity and class, but when pride got in the way of the important work that he loved, he humbled himself and let the work guide him. Through following his heart, he literally helped improve the hearts of others.

But it is also the story of an unlikely and sometimes troubled friendship between an established and renowned white doctor and his "assistant." Dr. Blalock's support of Thomas underscores what the elders of Thomas' generation knew: Only mastery of a craft ensured elevation for black people. In some ways, it is what Bill Cosby was trying to communicate during that now infamous speech. Fifty years following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which is threaded through the film via Thomas' brother Harold's involvement in a lawsuit in Nashville to get equal pay for the city's black teachers, those like Cosby suggest that some have gotten comfortable and forgotten that we have a responsibility to accept nothing less than greatness for ourselves.

Vivien T. Thomas did not get his portrait placed among the most acknowledged minds of medical history by accepting less than his best. The odds he faced were insurmountable, yet with a commitment to excellence, an unwavering love for his family and undoubtedly a strong belief in God, his life serves as a testament of the timeless theme of African American life: There is always a way out of no way.

Chicago native Ronda Racha Penrice, who has lived in both New York and Los Angeles, is a writer currently living in Atlanta, Georgia.

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