Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas

Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas

Tiny Stitches  The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks and illus. by Colin Bootman

Imagine you have a baby with a heart problem and that baby is going to have to undergo surgery with its life hanging in the balance.  Will the surgeons be able to save her?  Will you ever hold that baby in your arms again?  The surgeon will operate using tools and techniques that may deliver a miracle.  Where were these techniques born? Who discovered the surgical process that just might be the answer to these parents' prayer?

History.  “The Past Is Prologue.”  Our story as an American people.  A week or so ago, I wrote a recommendation for Nora Raleigh Baskin’s latest powerful story, NINE, TEN: A SEPTEMBER 11 STORY.  That’s history in our own lifetime and possibly history in the lifetime of our young reader. It’s close to us.  

But we have other history that we need to know about. It’s like going back and looking through the photo albums of your grandparents or reading a diary of someone in your family.  What hopes and dreams did their life hold?  How were they “held” in the world?  Was their life a struggle or did they have doorways swinging wide open on their path?

This is the biography, the story of a life, of a remarkable African American man you may never have heard of.  Here the light is shined on the dark places in American history.  This is about not accepting other people and not treating every human being as equal and deserving of every opportunity.  

Gwendolyn Hooks has done careful research and she tells the story of this man, Vivien Thomas, with detail and depth so we can understand and feel what it was like to be him with all of his brilliance and determination and we can see that because of the color of his skin he was denied respect and equality.  

In October 1929 when the stock market crashed, millions of Americans lost everything.  One of them was an African American man named Vivien Thomas who lost all of the money he was saving to go to college. He and his father had worked as carpenters but those days were over as few Americans could afford to build a home during the Great Depression.  Where could he begin again?

How did this African American man make his dreams come true?  How did he climb the ladder of success in this era of discrimination?

This is the story of a man whose genius saved lives.  This is the story of a man who was listed as a janitor even while he was contributing to medical research in the lab of Dr. Alfred Blalock.  

It’s painful to read about that Vivien Thomas’ wages were not equal to that of the white technicians and that he was not even given the same job title. It’s eye-opening to discover that when Dr. Blalock went to work at Johns Hopkins and insisted that Vivien Thomas be invited by the University as well that there all the better homes and apartments were “whites only.”

The journey of Vivien Thomas is brought vividly to life through stories of his work in the operating rooms as he invented new surgical procedures that saved the lives of babies.    He taught himself,  coached colleagues and his superior and educated surgeons through his innovative and award-winning procedures.  The awards, please note, were given to others.  

Though he never went to medical school, his research “pioneered open-heart surgery on children.”  Even today his work is saving the lives of children born with heart problems.

This is a powerful story of a gifted man for whom opportunity was limited simply because of his skin color.  We need to acknowledge the injustices of those times. It’s important to learn of the mistakes of the past so we can right some wrongs and learn to honor every human being for the gifts and abilities they bring.    

We are indebted to Gwendolyn Hooks for giving us such a clear picture of the discrimination faced by someone as gifted as Vivien Thomas.  Written for older readers this is a stirring biography of a man who persevered in the field he loved and succeeded against the forces that would hold him back.  

Vivien Thomas created those life-saving procedures.  Vivien Thomas is the reason this baby undergoing heart surgery has a chance to survive. Read this one aloud and give every child the chance to feel the empathy and to get a sense of what it would be like to live this life of barriers and denial.

32 pages  978-1620141564  Ages 8-12

Recommended by:  Barb Langridge, abookandahug.com

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