Meet the American who mended defective infant hearts, Vivien Thomas, high-school educated cardiac surgeon

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Dr. Vivien Thomas was born with the skill to mend broken hearts.

Armed with the brain of a scientist and the hands of a craft carpenter, he stands today as one of the world’s most influential cardiac surgeons.

Thomas never attended medical school. He couldn’t even afford college. 

But in 1944, he directed one of the landmark procedures in the history of heart medicine.

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Thomas guided his mentor, Dr. Alfred Blalock, in the first successful operation to repair the heart of a baby suffering Tetralogy of Fallot – better known as blue-baby syndrome. 

“Blalock knew what he had, and what he had was a Michael Jordan of surgery in his lab,” said Dr. Koco Eaton, Thomas’ nephew, in a telephone interview with Fox News Digital.

Vivien Thomas as a young research assistant. (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Sisters by Heart)

Eaton is the team physician for the Tampa Bay Rays of Major League Baseball. 

Dr. Blalock was the chief of surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, one of the nation’s most renowned doctors. 

Yet he entrusted his career, the future of cardiac surgery and the life of the 18-month-old baby to the direction of a former carpenter with a high-school diploma.

“What he had was a Michael Jordan of surgery in his lab.”

Eaton said his “humble” uncle never discussed his career at the forefront of cardiac surgery. 

He only learned of Thomas’ prestige when his uncle volunteered to drive him to his medical school interview at Johns Hopkins in the early 1980s.

Thomas’ portrait hung on the wall. He was greeted warmly, even reverently, by school staff.  

Dr. Blalock

Dr. Alfred Blalock in 1945, chief surgeon at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.  (Getty Images)

Eaton grew up attending July 4th family cookouts at Thomas’ Baltimore, Maryland home.

Only after walking in the shadow of his uncle did Eaton realize there was something special about the man sweating over the grill on Independence Day. 

“The tongs he used to flip the hot dogs and hamburgers were modified surgical clamps he designed himself,” said Eaton. 

Thomas had the audacity to build a better spatula. 

He also had the talent to teach the world’s best surgeons how to stitch new life into the dying hearts of infants.

Postdoctoral researcher paid as a janitor

Vivien Theodore Thomas was born on Aug. 29, 1910 to Willard Maceo and Mary Alice (Eaton) Thomas in Lake Providence or New Iberia, Louisiana. 

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He was raised in Nashville, Tennessee, graduating with honors from Pearl High School in 1929. 

He worked as a carpenter and harbored dreams of attending college and then medical school. 

Stock market crash

The front page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper with the headline, “Wall St. In Panic As Stocks Crash,” published on the day of the initial Wall Street Crash of “Black Thursday,” Oct. 24, 1929. (FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The world had different ideas. The stock market crash of 1929 wiped out his college savings, Thomas wrote in his autobiography.

He instead found work as a research assistant for Dr. Blalock at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

He proved an intuitive scientist and surgeon. 

“Thomas rapidly mastered complex surgical techniques and research methodology.”

“The clamp had to stop the flow of blood, but not damage the delicate tissue,” said Eaton.

The plan was for Dr. Blalock to practice on the animals using Thomas’ techniques before operating on a human infant.

Baby Ellen’s condition quickly worsened. She was rushed into the operating room — Blalock leading the surgical team, Thomas observing from a gallery.

Eaton describes the dramatic events that followed.

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“It’s a very complex surgery. It was the first time you were sewing blood vessels together that are the size of angel-hair pasta,” the doctor said.

Dr. Blalock needed help from the top expert in the field. 

“Blalock saw Thomas in the balcony and told him to come down and stand next to him. So Thomas comes down and stands behind and basically tells him, ‘Flip your hand this way, do the stitch the other way, come back with it this way.’”

Thomas had the skills and the knowledge they had yet to learn. 

Thomas missed his chance to go to medical school; but fate apparently planned something more profound for him. 

“He probably wouldn’t have done all this work if he had attended medical school,” said Dr. Eaton. 

“Things worked out for him and for the betterment of mankind. We all benefited from his work.” 

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The beaming nephew added, “A lot of people say with pride today ‘I was taught surgery by Vivien Thomas.’”

To read more stories in this unique “Meet the American Who…” series from Fox News Digital, click here

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