“What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times…” – You Are There, 1953
November 29, 1944: Dr. Alfred Blalock took one final look into the incision. It looked right… he had been operating for years, surgery shouldn’t make him nervous anymore. But this operation did. He had completed this same surgery on a dog only once, and no one had ever tried it on a human before. Let this work…
“Watch for bleeding,” his assistant reminded him as he started to remove the clamp. Blalock nodded, ready to drop the clamp back into place if the new connection leaked. But not too hard, too much pressure and you crush the Pulmonary Artery; do that and you kill the patient.
His partner, Dr. Helen Taussig, stood near the head of the table. Heart surgery had been her idea, she had just as much riding on this operation as he did. Probably more – she had assured both him and the child’s parents that the theory behind this operation was sound. The little girl’s heart defect caused Cyanosis – she was literally suffocating from lack of oxygen. Taussig’s theory was to reroute a blood vessel to the lung and increase the amount of oxygenated blood available. Blalock’s assistant, Vivien Thomas, had designed the operation and tested it. All three of them had their reputations on the line.
And the irony of it all was if things went bad, he’d probably be the one to suffer least. Blalock was the Chief of Surgery, after all. Taussig was an almost deaf female doctor (who ever heard of such a thing?) and Thomas was a Black man who official job description wasn’t supposed to bring him anywhere near a scalpel, much less doing experimental surgery. If things went wrong, they would be the ones hung out to dry.
So let’s not allow things to go wrong, Blalock thought as he inspected his work again. “I’m removing the clamps,” he finally said.
Reaching into the open wound, he gently touched the new connection. “I can’t feel any flow,” Blalock said, disappointed. After a long pause, Taussig spoke.
“Al, the baby’s lips are a glorious pink color.” Stunned, the surgeon watched as the child’s blue lips slowly turned pink.
Before that day in 1944 heart defects were almost always fatal, usually during the first year of life. Occasionally a child was lucky enough to survive to late childhood or the early teens, but that was only under the best of circumstances. And that “lucky” child had no strength, no energy, and very little Quality of Life. Even after that first surgery (the Blalock-Taussig Shunt) there was still only one operation, designed to relieve the effects of one heart defect. The odds weren’t good, but CHDers now had a chance. And sometimes one chance is all you need.
CHD Survivors, our families, and our friends celebrate November 29 as Red and Blue Day. Participating in Red and Blue Day is simple – just dress in red and blue clothing. You don’t have to donate any money (though if you choose to, your favorite CHD Support Group would be an excellent choice!) and you don’t have to volunteer to do anything. Simple as can be. If anyone compliments you on your good taste or your color scheme, just be prepared to explain why you chose those colors.
A Heart Defect is an Invisible Disability… many of us don’t even look like we have a health problem. Some of us are Cyanotic, but you have to look really close (and know what you are looking for) to see it. But November 29 is OUR DAY, so wear Red and Blue… and let’s stand out!