Celebrate Red and Blue Day

“What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times…” – You Are There, 1953

November 29, 1944: Dr. Alfred Blalock took one final look into the incision. It looked right… he had been operating for years, surgery shouldn’t make him nervous anymore. But this operation did. He had completed this same surgery on a dog only once, and no one had ever tried it on a human before. Let this work…

“Watch for bleeding,” his assistant reminded him as he started to remove the clamp. Blalock nodded, ready to drop the clamp back into place if the new connection leaked. But not too hard, too much pressure and you crush the Pulmonary Artery; do that and you kill the patient.

His partner, Dr. Helen Taussig, stood near the head of the table. Heart surgery had been her idea, she had just as much riding on this operation as he did. Probably more – she had assured both him and the child’s parents that the theory behind this operation was sound. The little girl’s heart defect caused Cyanosis – she was literally suffocating from lack of oxygen. Taussig’s theory was to reroute a blood vessel to the lung and increase the amount of oxygenated blood available. Blalock’s assistant, Vivien Thomas, had designed the operation and tested it. All three of them had their reputations on the line.

And the irony of it all was if things went bad, he’d probably be the one to suffer least. Blalock was the Chief of Surgery, after all. Taussig was an almost deaf female doctor (who ever heard of such a thing?) and Thomas was a Black man who official job description wasn’t supposed to bring him anywhere near a scalpel, much less doing experimental surgery. If things went wrong, they would be the ones hung out to dry.

So let’s not allow things to go wrong, Blalock thought as he inspected his work again. “I’m removing the clamps,” he finally said.

Reaching into the open wound, he gently touched the new connection. “I can’t feel any flow,” Blalock said, disappointed. After a long pause, Taussig spoke.

“Al, the baby’s lips are a glorious pink color.” Stunned, the surgeon watched as the child’s blue lips slowly turned pink.

Before that day in 1944 heart defects were almost always fatal, usually during the first year of life. Occasionally a child was lucky enough to survive to late childhood or the early teens, but that was only under the best of circumstances. And that “lucky” child had no strength, no energy, and very little Quality of Life. Even after that first surgery (the Blalock-Taussig Shunt)  there was still only one operation, designed to relieve the effects of one heart defect. The odds weren’t good, but CHDers now had a chance. And sometimes one chance is all you need.

CHD Survivors, our families, and our friends celebrate November 29 as Red and Blue Day. Participating in Red and Blue Day is simple – just dress in red and blue clothing. You don’t have to donate any money (though if you choose to, your favorite CHD Support Group would be an excellent choice!) and you don’t have to volunteer to do anything. Simple as can be. If anyone compliments you on your good taste or your color scheme, just be prepared to explain why you chose those colors.

A Heart Defect is an Invisible Disability… many of us don’t even look like we have a health problem. Some of us are Cyanotic, but you have to look really close (and know what you are looking for) to see it. But November 29 is OUR DAY, so wear Red and Blue… and let’s stand out!

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11 Responses to “Celebrate Red and Blue Day”

  1. Anne Gammon Says:

    The momentousness of this surgery brings tears to my eyes, Steve. Thanks for sharing; I most definitely will be participating in Red and Blue Day Nov. 29!!

  2. Laurel Nelson Says:

    I am incredibly grateful that these (and other) docs had the guts to go ahead with trying operations like this, when everyone else told them it couldn’t and shouldn’t be done.

  3. Rather Not Say Says:

    Steve where did you get this from? I know Red and Blue Day is “Our” Day but you can’t pretend to know what any of them were thinking or feeling on this day! I can only hope you wrote this out of the goodness of your heart for our children and didn’t just copy it from something and if you did I’d like to know where you are getting their thoughts from?? Thank you and I hope you don’t mind me not wanting to use my name for my child’s sake!!

    • Steve Says:

      While no one can “pretend to know what any of them were thinking or feeling” this post is based on several factual sources: Interviews of Dr. William Longmire and Dr. Denton Cooley, Vivien Thomas’ autobiography, Johns Hopkins Hospital’s online records, and historical articles about Blalock and Taussig, neither of whom wrote an autobiography. There is also information about the prevailing attitudes of the time taken from these works and general knowledge of American history. Although there were pioneers like Dr. Taussig, in the 1940′s female MD’s were still viewed as “overeducated nurses.” She was occasionally subjected to this mindset, and coupled with the fact that she was a Cardiologist who had severe hearing loss, she was invaluable at Johns Hopkins yet almost unemployable in any other field. Thomas was an African-American who was subject to the racism and segregation policies of the time. Until Blalock called him into the OR to observe and advise this operation, no African-American had ever been inside a Hopkins operating room. He and Blalock were required (by both custom and law) to eat in separate cafeterias and use separate washrooms.

      My degrees are in History and Political Science and I don’t copy other writers. Other writers copy me.

    • Nickie Says:

      Wow. Just unbelievably… wow.

  4. Karen Thurston Chavez Says:

    Nice job, Steve!

  5. Lisa Says:

    I will be wearing Red and Blue! Giving to CHD research will help more CHDers! Steve, you rock! Thank you for spreading awareness!

  6. Maressa Says:

    i will be wearing blue and red! thank you for spreading awareness

  7. Kim@insuringwaco.com Says:

    Just watched this movie on this exact event. thank God for those couargeous people who believed that the heart could be operated on when everyone else believe it was not an operatable organ. My son is a heart baby, he is a wonderful seven year boy.

  8. Betsy Says:

    I just found the movie, ‘Something the Lord made’ on Netflix. It’s about the very history your post is about. I never knew about red & blue day though. Thanks for sharing! As a parent of a CHD child you can be sure I will be wearing my red & blue!

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