What good is a deaf cardiologist?

Not much.

I’ve written about Vivien Thomas and Alfred Blaock; so it is time to write a few lines about the third person involved in the Blalock-Taussig Shunt: Pediatric Cardiologist Helen Brooke Taussig.

For those of you who may not know, Taussig’s my personal hero. When I was a patient at Johns Hopkins in 1967, Taussig herself examined me. From what my parents tell me, she was officially retired, but still lived in the Baltimore area and “stopped by the office” occasionally. I was five months old at the time, so I don’t remember it.

Her father was Frank Taussig, a prominent economist who taught at Harvard. Imagine his frustration when his daughter tried her best in school but still seemed to just not get it. I think every parent has shared that frustration at one time or another. It wasn’t her fault – it turns out that Helen Taussig had Dyslexia. Finally after a lot of patient work with her father everything just “clicked” and she was able to graduate. She went to the University of California at Berkley and then applied to Harvard Medical School.

The problem was, Harvard didn’t accept women into its medical program, so Helen tried Johns Hopkins Medical School instead. After she graduated, she took the job as head of the Cardiac Clinic at Hopkins’ children’s hospital, the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children.

Ironically, after becoming a doctor, Helen Taussig began to lose her hearing. And what good is a doctor – especially a cardiologist – who loses their hearing?

Thankfully, it wasn’t a sudden event. Helen Taussig lost her hearing slowly, and was able to compensate. Obviously a hearing aid would help, and she took full advantage of them. The movie Something the Lord Made is inaccurate in one respect: Mary Stuart Masterson (the actress who played the role of Helen Taussig) chose to use a more advanced hearing aid than was available at the time. The earpiece available in the early 1940’s was the size of an earmuff, and Masterson thought that such a large, bulky prop would distract from the character. (Look at this 1940’s era photo of Dr. Taussig examining a child in a wheelchair. The black box balanced on the edge of the chair is not Taussig’s medical bag, it is the amplifier for her hearing aid.)

As her hearing faded, she lost the ability to hear some of the chest sounds that a Cardiologist needs to hear to make a diagnosis. So she taught herself how to feel heartbeats by placing her fingertips lightly on the patient’s chest, and for years her hands were her “second stethoscope.” (Click here for a close-up photo of Taussig’s fingertip examination.)

Known mainly for her work in Pediatric Cardiology, few remember that Helen Taussig also played a critical role in averting the Thalidomide crisis in the United States. While Frances Kelsey receives credit (deservedly so) for not authorizing the drug for sale here, Taussig got involved when one of her German students commented that there had been a marked increase in the occurrence of Phocomelia in her home country. Taussig began to study the problem, and before long had determined that the morning sickness drug Thalidomide was causing birth defects. Because of Kelsey’s and Taussig’s actions, only 17 American children were affected by the drug.

So, what good is a deaf cardiologist? It all depends on who that deaf cardiologist is!

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4 Responses to “What good is a deaf cardiologist?”

  1. carolyn compton Says:

    I am enjoying the way you have built up Taussig and explained her importance over weeks, now you reveal your personal claim! wow!

  2. Steve Says:

    I wish it were more of a claim; since I was 5 months old, most likely I just spit up on her! But you have to admire the woman, she took everything that life threw at her and figured out how to work around it.

    Sadly, it was her deafness that probably killed her in 1986. She and a group of friends were going to vote, and she was driving. She pulled into the intersection a moment too soon and was hit broadside by another car. Taussig was the only one who perished; her passengers were only mildly shaken up.

  3. Dina Says:

    Thanks for stopping by Jillian’s blog and sending me an email bringing me to your wonderful site. Very informative.
    Taussig is great – my daughter’s defects are collectively called Taussig-Bing anomoly I am assuming due to her influence in pediatric cardiology – and if you have read through my blog at all I actually met a women in her 50s who was one of Taussig’s students guinea pigs.

    Anyway – it is nice to meet you and I’ll be stopping by often.


  4. Nicole Says:

    Steve, ironically, another significant contributor in our field, Dr. Bob Carp lost his life in a tragic auto accident (maybe motorcycle) many years ago. He was one of my surgeons as an intern/resident and later performed the first heart transplant in this area. Thank you for this preservation of historical facts regarding these terrific scientists without whom we would not be here today.

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