The Big Story About Saving Tiny Lives
If you haven’t heard the name Vivien Thomas yet—you will soon. Oklahoma City author, Gwendolyn Hooks, is celebrating the release of her 20th children’s book, Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas. It’s already earning rave reviews.
Back in the 1940s, Vivien developed a technique that is still saving thousands of babies born with low oxygen, sometimes called “blue baby syndrome.” But decades passed before he received any credit for his discovery. After all, he was only a research assistant.
Fast forward to 2010. Gwendolyn Hooks was up late A text came through. “Are you awake? Call me.” It was from Gwendolyn’s friend and fellow author, Anna Myers. It was after 11 o’clock, it must be trouble. “Gwen, Gwen,” Anna shouted into the phone. “I just saw a movie about the man who saved my little Will’s life. His name is Vivien Thomas. You have to write his story.”
Little Will, Anna’s grandson, was born a perfect angel—but a few hours later, he developed signs of serious heart defects. Will’s tiny lips and fingers started to turn blue. His oxygen levels were too low. Will needed a delicate surgery to open valves in his heart and increase blood flow. He required the surgery developed by Vivien Thomas.
Now, Will is ten years old and doing fine, but the fear Anna’s family experienced can never be forgotten. So when Anna’s brother saw a movie about the little-known Vivien Thomas, he called Anna in tears, insisting she watch the movie. Anna was equally moved. She could now put a name to the man who saved her grandson’s life.
“Anna, I’ve never heard of Vivien Thomas.” Gwendolyn said. “He means something to you, you should write it,” Gwendolyn said.
“Gwen,” Anna said, “this story has to be told, and the author has to be African American. God told me you’re the one to write this.”
When Anna speaks emphatically to her author friends, they pay attention. After all, Anna is in the Oklahoma Writer’s Hall of Fame. So, Gwendolyn watched the movie and started to research Vivien Thomas. What she discovered was the remarkable fortitude of a man who cared more about saving lives than taking credit. Vivien was unable to afford medical school, so he took a job as a research assistant.
It took Vivien a while to realize that because he was a black man working in an all-white university, he was treated differently. Vivien wasn’t paid as a lab technician, his official job title was janitor. He couldn’t walk in the front door. He wasn’t allowed to wear a lab coat, which indicated doctor status.
In 1943, Dr. Alfred Blalock was asked to develop a surgery to save blue babies, but since he was busy with other projects, he asked Vivien to do the research. Working with Dr. Blalock, Vivien’s natural aptitude led to the creation of a procedure for shunting arteries and sewing the vessels together. Vivien developed miniature tools and experimented on animal hearts, sewing arteries together with tiny stitches. It worked, and it was ground breaking!
When Dr. Blalock was asked to try the technique on a dying baby, Vivien stood behind him on a stool and coached Dr. Blalock through the surgery he’d developed. The baby survived.
Vivien then stood over Dr. Blalock’s shoulder and talked him through 150 additional surgeries. However, the procedure was named after Dr. Blalock and another colleague, who wrote a scientific paper about the procedure. Vivien was never mentioned. Nor was he invited to the celebration in which Dr. Blalock was nominated for a Nobel Prize for the surgical technique.
As Gwendolyn dug further into Vivien Thomas’ life, she was amazed by his humbleness. Despite being ignored professionally, he and Dr. Blalock maintained a congenial working relationship. Vivien continued his work and generously trained hundreds of doctors on his technique. It wasn’t until 26 years later when Vivien was acknowledged by students for his medical contributions, and his portrait was placed at Johns Hopkins University.
With Anna’s encouragement, Gwendolyn spent three years writing and rewriting Vivien’s story. She contacted Oklahoma doctors who had trained under Vivien or who perform the blue baby surgery, such as Dr. Harold Burkhart.
Since Gwendolyn was writing a children’s book, she didn’t want the emphasis to be the racism issue. Vivien’s treatment might have been “the norm” in the 1940s, but his ability to see past himself was not. Gwendolyn wanted readers to know that Vivien could have been bitter and walked away, but he focused on his goals instead of his feelings.
Gwendolyn also pushed aside her own doubts that her book would ever be good enough. Her husband kept saying, “You can do this! But maybe you should come to bed now—it’s 2 o’clock in the morning.” Despite having already published 20 books herself, writing about such an important topic didn’t come quickly or easily—but Gwendolyn forged through dozens of “clunky drafts” until she had written a story that honored Vivien. “The words didn’t come magically—but the final manuscript gave my agent chills,” Gwendolyn said.
Gwendolyn spent two more years revising the book. Another year passed while illustrator Colin Bootman finished the watercolor illustrations. Bootman is a previous winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for outstanding books by African Americans.
According to Kirkus Review, Gwendolyn’s story is told with a “gently insistent message of perseverance.” It’s exactly what she hoped would come across. “Vivien couldn’t afford medical school, so he grabbed at the detour that came his way. By focusing on his goal, his dream was fulfilled,” Gwendolyn said. And Anna stood over Gwendolyn’s shoulder and encouraged her to trust in her talent.
“Gwen worried that she couldn’t do this story justice,” Anna said. “But I knew she could—and she did it beautifully.”
To learn more, visit www.gwendolynhooks.com. Attend the book reveal on June 9, 6-8pm at Chi Gallery, 2300 NW 17th, OKC.