Remove Shoes Before Viewing

Would you like to know how we got here?

If you ever wondered exactly how, when, and where Congenital Heart Surgery began, you need to rent a copy of the movie Something the Lord Made. There is no warning sticker on the box, so I’m telling you right now: Remove your shoes before the movie begins. It will literally blow your socks off. After all, there is no use in ruining a perfectly good pair of socks!

The story begins in Nashville, just before a young Vanderbilt researcher named Alfred Blalock hires a young Black man named Vivien Thomas as an assistant. Thomas, an out of work carpenter, is glad to get the job, but it is obvious Blalock sees him as just another in a long line of janitors. The work is simple, but apparently this researcher is a hard taskmaster as he implies that no one (so far) has been able to maintain the lab to his standards.

Blalock soon finds Thomas studying one of his anatomy books and gives him more responsibility, and the young assistant rises to the occasion. But the doctor’s famous temper flares when an important piece of equipment is neglected, and Thomas walks off the job. “I was not raised to be spoken to in this manner,” he says as he exits the building. Blalock recants, chases Thomas down, and apologizes. “It won’t happen again,” he says, and historically, he was true to his word. Blalock lost his temper often and chewed out almost student or assistant he ever had, but never again with Thomas. (Blalock’s temper was rooted more in frustration than anger; often he mutters phrases such as “Will no one help me?” and even asks a nurse “Can’t you see my ears?”)

The two do masterful work in solving the problem of shock after injury, their research saving the lives of many World War Two soldiers. The doctor is noticed and hired away by Johns Hopkins and he takes his right hand man with him.

The camera work done on the Baltimore campus captures the hospital perfectly, but what is even more impressive is what it does not capture. Johns Hopkins Hospital is a mix of traditional and modern architecture, often with one style practically on top of the other. Masterful camera work prevents you from seeing “modern” Hopkins until the time comes. Todays visitors to the Hospital know that there are large modern towers located on either side of the Billings Administration building (the large domed structure) but tight shots and closeups prevent you from seeing them until the 1960’s era. I’m not a Hopkins historian, but I did not see anything appear before its natural timeframe.

Our heroes meet Dr. Helen Taussig, who convinces Blalock that if he wants a major project to work on, he needs to consider Heart Surgery. (Specifically, a surgical procedure to relieve Tetralogy of Fallot, also known as ToF) Taussig is a personal hero of mine and I wish her part could be bigger; but understandably this not her story, so she takes a minor role. Also at the first discussion of cardiac surgery are two other minor characters, Doctor Longmire and Doctor Cooley. Both of these men would go on to become giants in heart surgery (Longmire at UCLA and Cooley at the Texas Heart Institute) but the movie treats them both as just two more medical students… which is exactly what they were at the time.

The movie hits all the little details perfectly. Blalock DID use his scientific equipment to brew his coffee (he didn’t like to share and figured no one would drink out of a test tube, no matter what it smelled like!) and two of Dr. Taussig’s young patients are shown in the “ToF squat” that many Blue Babies of the time preferred. By bending deep at the knees, blood flow to the lower legs would be restricted and more would be available for the lungs. A photo of a child in the ToF Squat appears in her medical textbook, Congenital Malformations of the Heart. The girl in the wheelchair is also duplicated in a scene from a Hopkins waiting room; she’s only on the screen for a moment, but it lends historical accuracy to the scene.

The 800 pound Gorilla in the room is, of course, the racism of the time. It’s almost never mentioned, though Thomas’ wife comes close (“He’s getting a raise to do the work he’s already doing!”). But it is there, and it affects everything. Thomas does the work but Blalock and Taussig get the glory. And in keeping with the time, neither doctor sees anything unusual about that. Having one (or both) be a crusader for Thomas would only weaken the story; they are reacting the way a White person from that era would normally react. In the end Thomas is recognized, and it is Taussig who redeems him.

Rent it. And take your shoes off before you watch it.

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One Response to “Remove Shoes Before Viewing”

  1. Rick Boyer Says:

    Nice writing style. I look forward to reading more in the future.

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