Monday, December 5, 2016

Non-Fiction Monday: Tiny Stitches: the life of medical pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks

Tiny Stitches: the life of medical pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks. Illustrated by Colin Bootman. unpgd. Lee & Low Books, May, 2016. 9781620141564. (Review from purchased copy)

This is the story of Vivien Thomas who wanted to become a doctor. So he worked hard alongside of his father, who was a master carpenter and saved his money. But he lost it all in the stock market crash of 1929. While jobs were scarce for carpenters during the Great Depression, Vivien learned about a job opening at Vanderbilt Medical School. He hoped that by taking it, he could keep his dreams of becoming a doctor alive. 

He interviewed with Dr. Alfred Blalock. Dr. Blalock wanted someone to help him with his research into treatment for patients in shock. Blalock was impressed with Vivien and offered him the job. Blalock taught Vivien how to conduct experiments and write up lab reports. Another doctor loaned him medical texts. Vivien was such a quick study that it wasn't long before he was conducting his own experiments. 

He learned to suture seamlessly. He also learned that his job description was that of janitor and that white men with the same duties were earning more than he. He informed Dr. Blalock that he would no longer work for him unless he was paid comparably. 

When Doctor Blalock left Vanderbilt to join Johns Hopkins, Vivien knew it would not be long before he was fired by Vanderbilt so he moved to Baltimore but could not find housing. It turned out that Johns Hopkins was more segregated that Vanderbilt but Vivien persevered. 

In 1943, a pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Helen Taussig, approached Dr. Blalock about finding a way to cure the tiniest cardiac patients, the "blue babies." These were babies who were born with a congenital heart defect known as Tetrology of Fallot, or four defects that prevented blood from being properly oxygenated.

After months of experimenting, Vivien realized that the solution might be a "procedure he and Dr. Blalock perfected at Vanderbilt for a different problem." One stumbling block to trying this surgery was that the needles were too long for the tiny infants' hearts and blood vessels. Vivien needed to make the needles small enough to use on a newborn. He tried his new needles out on animals and found a way to anastomose arteries using them. In November of 1944, Dr. Taussig had a baby girl who needed surgery or she would die. 

On the morning of the surgery, Dr. Blalock insisted that Vivien remain in the operating room to help guide him through the surgery. The baby survived thanks to Vivien's help but Dr. Blalock got all the credit and press. Dr. Blalock became world famous and Vivien was never credited for his research until 1971. In 1976, he was given an honorary doctorate and appointed to the faculty as instructor. 

Talk about injustice! What tenacity and perseverance on the part of Vivien Thomas! This is an important addition to any school, public or classroom or STEM library. The mostly double-page watercolor illustrations are fantastic. They convey Vivien Thomas' dignity and intelligence. Two pages of backmatter provides more information about Tetrology of Fallot and Vivien Thomas, followed by a glossary of medical terms and source notes. 

Truly a first-purchase with cross-curricular uses.

ETA: I almost forgot! The eighth grade social studies teacher has a unit on African-American inventors. I asked him if Vivien Thomas was on the list of possible inventors to research. He was not; but after hearing my synopsis of the story, the teacher wants to add him.


  1. I hope the Social Studies teacher added Tiny Stitches to his list of books. Thank you for the post, Gwendolyn

  2. He did! The students are choosing their inventors today and, so far, one student has chosen him and checked out your book as well as Jim Murphy's Breakthrough. Thank you for this beautiful resource and thanks for stopping by my humble blog.