Our heroes are human

Don’t get me wrong, the man is a hero. But like a lot of heroes, we tend to overlook their shortcomings.

I’m guilty of that with my hero, Helen Taussig. She’s deaf, she’s dyslexic, she’s a woman working in a man’s world. But you rarely hear about her stubborn streak. When Helen Taussig made her mind up, she was right, and that was all there was to it. Being that focused usually served her well but it did occasionally get the better of her. At times, she was so stubborn she would continue to do research even when the data was not showing any progress.

Alfred Blalock had his own little habits and faults, too. But rather than harm the man’s standing and reputation, they just make him that much more interesting.

While Blalock gets credit – and deservedly so – for performing the Blalock-Taussig Shunt, he was not the best surgeon. After all, he did call for Surgical Technician Vivien Thomas to stand beside him and guide him through the surgery. Not once, not until Blalock felt more sure of the procedure, but every single time.

When Blalock graduated Johns Hopkins in 1922, he applied for a surgical residency. He didn’t get it. He chose to hang around and try again, so he interned in Urology and even tried Ear, Nose, and Throat work. Finally he left for a hospital in Boston but turned right around and left for Vanderbilt University. “I didn’t even unpack my trunk,” he said of his stay in Boston.

Although the first Professor of Surgery at Vanderbilt, Blalock was more of a researcher. Very few stories of him in the operating theatre exist but he produced scholarly research by the truckload.  Assisted by Vivien Thomas, the two changed everything that was known about shock at the time.

Thomas was certainly the better cutter of the two. After his return to Johns Hopkins, Blalock was again Chief Professor of Surgery. He usually conducted the classroom lectures, with Thomas running the surgical labs. The labs is where medical students learned how to operate – you learn by doing, and it was Vivien Thomas who was showing them how to cut.

Blalock was possessive, and felt that what was his was… well, it was his, and if he though you deserved special treatment he would share. As shown in the movie Something the Lord Made, Blalock really did brew his coffee in a graduated cylinder heated over a Bunsen burner. He figured that was one way he could insure no one bothered his coffee. After all, who’s going to drink a liquid out of a scientific instrument in a hospital lab, even if it does smell like coffee? One thing the movie doesn’t mention is Blalock’s stash of Cokes hidden in a box he had labeled “medical waste”!

I’m not a fan of Coke, but Cheerwine… I can see myself keeping a few cans of that under lock and key! Obviously, Alfred Blalock was a hero to a lot of us. But better still, he was just as human as you and I.

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