American Experience
Early Years: Pivotal Decisions
Pivotal Decisions: Should Thomas Attend the Blue Baby Operation?

Baltimore, 1945
Vivien Thomas had worked for nearly a year perfecting in the laboratory a procedure to treat the Blue Baby syndrome, a congenital heart defect in children. Dr. Alfred Blalock planned to rehearse the operation he had conceived with Thomas, a procedure that Blalock himself had conducted on lab animals only a handful of times. However, the precarious health of a 15-month-old child intervened. Blalock would need to operate on Eileen Saxon in the morning, without the chance to practice the procedure in advance.

Alone in the empty lab, Thomas had learned how to induce in lab animals the Blue Baby syndrome, a heart malformation which prevents oxygenated blood from circulating properly. Then, 200 times over, he performed the heart operation he and Blalock believed would overcome the circulatory problems caused by the defect.

It had been almost a year since Hopkins pediatrician Dr. Helen Taussig had requested Blalock's help with this deadly malady, and Blalock was ready to perfect the procedure. They worked out a rehearsal schedule: Blalock was to assist Thomas once or twice and then do the procedure himself.

However, on the evening of November 28, 1944, Dr. Blalock phoned Thomas in the laboratory. There was no time left, he told him, for the rehearsals they had planned. Eileen Saxon, a 15-month-old infant, so blue she was purple, had only days to live without the procedure.

Select one of these three choices:

Choice 1
Blalock should do the surgery alone and discuss it with Thomas afterward.

Choice 2
Blalock should go to the president of Johns Hopkins University and request special permission to allow Thomas to participate in the surgery.

Choice 3
Challenging ideas about who should be in the operating room, Blalock should ask Thomas to join him.