A fascinating read that focuses on both local and internationally important histories, Breakthrough! Is the record of the surgeon Alfred Blalock, his assistant Vivien Thomas and Dr. Helen Taussig, who teamed up to invent an operation to save some of their tiniest patients. Previous to the innovation of Blalock, Thomas and Taussig in 1944 there was an affliction known as “blue baby” syndrome, in which the patient’s color would change and their breathing would gradually decrease This syndrome was almost always fatal, and affected mostly patients between birth and 5 years of age. Dr. Taussig often worked with and attempted to treat many of these Blue Babies and was the leading expert on the disease but she needed the help of an experienced surgeon to develop and perform what she thought could be the cure. She, Vivien Thomas and Dr. Blalock were all working at Johns Hopkins at the time and although Blalock was reluctant to take on the task at first, he eventually agreed. Essential to the story is the fact that Thomas, who because of his African American heritage had been kept at the level of assistant instead of given schooling and credentials that would have promoted him to surgeon, was the main developer of the operation, which involved re-routing veins in the heart in order to increase oxygen flow in afflicted patients. The incredible delicacy and skill Thomas possessed could not be put into practice in the operating room directly, but he did assist and direct Blalock every step of the way on the revolutionary day that all three of their efforts paid off and their first young patient was permanently cured.
Breakthrough! is a fascinating piece of local history that discusses how much medicine has advanced in this century, the racial and gender barriers we have overcome and those still left to tackle on the horizon. It’s excellent reading for personal interest or for research on the topic of the blue babies disease or any of the individual doctors the account centers around.