Last Sunday we ate dinner at my in-laws’, and while I was chopping up apples for my salad, I mentioned to my mother-in-law that I was reading a book about developing an operation to save ‘blue babies’ and was learning all kinds of things in the process. My father-in-law, at the other end of the room, started asking questions about it, which was unexpected (he and I generally read different kinds of books). After several questions he asked me if I knew why he was so interested, and then continued with “I had an older brother…” I told him that yes, I knew he’d had an older brother that died, and my father-in-law nodded and responded, “He was a blue baby. He was born in 1942 and lived for 5 days.”
I hadn’t known that. And it blew me away, because I had already learned that the first successful operation on a blue baby had taken place in 1944. He’s since ordered his own copy of Breakthrough!: How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” And Changed Medicine Forever, which is just as well (my copy is getting returned to the library the next time I pass a drive-through). He may even find it more interesting than I did–but I found it fascinating. The surgical procedure in question was actually developed by a black lab assistant to the head of surgery at John Hopkins. Vivien Thomas was the only black employee at the time who wasn’t in a menial position, and his journey involved a whole lot more than scientific research. Together, however, he, his employer, and the head of the pediatric cardiac unit found a way to save the lives of countless children who weren’t expected to see adulthood. This is a book about science, about medicine, about the history of race in this country, and–most importantly–about progress. It’s a compelling read for anyone.
Don’t miss it.