By Joe Valente
17 Nov

Turn Blue to Pink...Death Into Life

Thursday, November 17, 2016

We watch movies for a myriad of reasons. For me, Something the Lord Made is a movie that touches all of my emotions. As a congenital heart disease (CHD) advocate, it motivates me, but also reminds me of all the work that is still ahead of us. As a blue baby, it brings me to tears when I see children who had no chance of survival.  At the same time, I have deep feelings of gratitude towards all who sacrificed for CHD research. People that I have never met have forever changed my life and that of so many millions more. It shows me that anything is possible and that the best solutions in life may come from the people you least expect. It reminds me always to keep an open ear and heart.

If you have not watched Something the Lord Made, please put it on the top of your list. It is the true story of the beginning of cardiac surgery. The paradigm in medicine at that time was always don’t touch the heart. Dr. Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas changed that in 1944 when they performed heart surgery on a blue baby with tetralogy of Fallot. While Dr. Blalock performed the surgery, his lab technician, Vivien Thomas, who developed and perfected the surgery on dogs, watched over his shoulder. It was Thomas’ skilled craftsmanship and drive to learn that allowed him to develop the tools and techniques to perform this procedure on a blue baby, taking her from blue to pink. The hope of Dr. Helen Taussig, a pediatric cardiologist, became reality. 

When I watch the scene in which the shunt in a young dog failed because the sutures did not grow with the heart, I am reminded of how far we still need to go. Seeing that image, all I can think about are the adults who were saved by the work of amazing people who now face problems that were not foreseen when their hearts were repaired as children. In the movie, when I see the waiting room full of babies and children from all reaches of the country waiting to get in to see Dr. Blalock, I think of the tremendous lack of access to care for the adult living with CHD today.

At the end of the movie, when the elder Dr. Blalock tells Vivien Thomas, “You know Vivien, they say you haven’t really lived unless you have a lot to regret…I regret…I have some regrets. But I think we should remember not what we lost, but what we did, all the lives that we saved”.  In that comment, I think of pediatric cardiologists and surgeons who lost more babies than they hoped to save and kept going and the one's today who grieve for the lives they couldn’t save. They are human beings who have sacrificed everything for those of us who have CHD so we can live our lives. Our thanks to them is more than one’s heart could ever express. If it were not for the efforts of Dr. Taussig, as the first CHD advocate for blue babies, Dr. Blalock as the one who worked tirelessly with Vivien Thomas and knew he was an integral part of their potential success, and Vivien Thomas who created something with his skillful hands and brilliant mind that saved lives, those of us with complex CHD may not be here today. For that, we owe them so many thanks.

Vivien Thomas' portrait hangs in the Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. If you’re ever there, stop by and see it and give him thanks. Although I was a blue baby who required immediate surgery, I did not have a BTT shunt (and yes I will always call it a BTT shunt). I was born at the time of new surgical methods. Yet, I am grateful for what Blalock, Taussig, and most importantly Thomas did because without them, there would have never been a shunt that has saved so many lives. 

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