The Woman Who Solved Crossword Puzzles

Born in 1898, Helen Taussig was the Dyslexic daughter of a world famous Economist. School was always difficult for her, which confounded her father to no end. Trying to help her, he took her to his beach cottage every summer. Helen played on the beach until mid afternoon, when her father would put away his Economics projects and work with her into the night. Progress was slow but they never gave up.

It finally “clicked” for Helen; not only did she make it through high school, she graduated college and medical school. One of the few female doctors in America, Dr. Edwards Park hired her to run the Cardiac Clinic in the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children, located at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

When she took the job in 1930,  cardiac care was practically nonexistent. Her patients fell into one of two categories: Children whose heart valves were damaged by Rheumatic Fever, or children born with Congenital Heart Defects. The Rheumatic Fever children usually recovered but were slowed by the heart valve damage. The Congenital Heart Defect kids rarely survived at all. Those with Cyanotic defects were the most helpless, as the lack of oxygen in their blood caused them to suffocate.

Determined to do something – anything – to help her patients, Helen began to collect and study the hearts of those that died. “These children are my little crossword puzzles,” she often said, “and one day I shall figure them out.” She also noticed and described a behavior known as the Tetralogy of Fallot Squat, in which the children either sat or squatted with their knees fully bent. Bending the knees cut off the blood flow to the lower legs, making more blood available for circulation to the lungs.

She finally determined that getting more blood to the lungs would help her Cyanotic patients, and the best way to do that was not through the heart itself, but by rerouting blood vessels. Not being a surgeon, Helen’s plan went untested until she heard that the new Chief of Surgery, Dr. Alfred Blalock, was looking for a new research project.

Hopkins legend states that Taussig confronted Blalock with her idea in the hospital lunchroom, when she barged her way into a discussion between the surgeon and her boss, Dr. Park. Like a bulldog she cornered Blalock and wouldn’t let him go until he agreed to seriously consider attempting heart surgery. Little did she know that Blalock already the beginnings of a plan; he and Research Assistant Vivien Thomas had surgically connected two blood vessels in a dog as part of their research. That particular experiment had failed, but it had produced an increased blood flow to the lungs.

Thomas developed the procedure and on November 29, 1944, Alfred Blalock cut Eillen Saxon’s Left Subclavian Artery and connected it to her Left Pulmonary Artery. Vivien Thomas stood on a stepstool behind him, offering instructions. About 90 minutes after the first incision, Blalock removed the final clamp from the Pulmonary Artery. Despite the odds, Eillen was still alive, and the Blalock-Taussig Shunt was born.

Dr. Helen Taussig – the Mother of Pediatric Cardiology – had solved her first crossword puzzle.

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One Response to “The Woman Who Solved Crossword Puzzles”

  1. rlbates Says:

    I’m glad she was able to “solve crossword puzzles” 🙂

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