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!