Jan 10, 2017

Medical Pioneering: Tiny Stitches

My grandma lived with us while I was growing up for stretches of several months at a time. I treasure the time I had with her and the many things she taught us. Among those were how to play canasta and euchre, along with the colorful expressions one uses while playing those card games. None were bawdy, just hilarious, much like the altered lyrics to old songs she sang. She regaled us with countless stories of her and my father's various escapades involving her myriad siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and neighbors, all living in a tight-knit German community in the midwest. 
I wish I had written those stories at the time, preserving the details of names and places and punchlines. Much stays with me, but so much is lost. 

One thing about which she spoke only briefly and occasionally was unforgettable. 

I had an aunt I would never know. My father was the oldest of not three siblings, but four. He had a baby sister, Rosemary, who lived only a few hours.  She was a "blue baby", and that expression was followed by saying she was born with a bad heart. I still recall my earliest, confused images of what "blue baby" meant, progressing over the years to an adult understanding of congenital heart defects and cyanosis. 
Lee and Low, 2016
While serving on the nonfiction panel for Cybils awards I read TINY STITCHES: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas. Medical progress since the 1920s is impressive on countless fronts, and many individuals deserve credit. In this picture book the author, Gwendolyn Hudson Hooks, reveals the overlooked life of Vivien Thomas. His childhood dream of becoming a doctor was a daring one for an African American at that time in history. He was derailed from his quest after only a year of college by the financial crash of the Depression. 
Thomas found work in a Johns Hopkins medical laboratory, eventually becoming a surgical assistant to a noted heart surgeon. He transferred his desire to become a doctor to dedicating himself to developing procedures and adapting  techniques and tools specific to serving the youngest patients. His devices and processes were capable of performing corrective heart surgery for the tiniest hearts of all, those of blue babies. Surgeries previously thought to be impossible.
With direct and descriptive narrative, Hooks reflects the purposeful and steady approach Thomas took toward this goal and others throughout his professional life. Because he lacked a medical degree he wasn't allowed to perform the surgeries himself. He stood at the elbow of others, guiding them in the live-saving techniques that came too late to save my Aunt Rosemary. His race reinforced many limitations, but eventually he was recognized for his life-saving innovations. 
Colin Bootman's illustrations complement the text perfectly, conveying the intensity and dedication Thomas demonstrated throughout his career. They also portray a realistic view of medical settings, including laboratories and operating theaters. The angles and perspectives within various page spreads show Thomas in relation to others. Those perspectives and expressions tell a story in themselves about both the credit and the dismissive attitudes he dealt with throughout his career.
The good news is that he was eventually awarded an honorary medical degree, joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins Medical College, and is credited with his role in the development of materials, techniques, and care that saves lives on a daily basis around the world. Today the vast majority of infants born with heart defects can be treated successfully and go on to live full and healthy lives.
Read more about Thomas in this archived article, here.
The extensive titles nominated for Cybils non-fiction means that many outstanding books missed the cut as finalists. I'm spotlighting this book because it is among those remarkably well-done books that deserve every bit of attention we can give them. In my opinion it should be included in every library "maker-space" and STEM classroom. And, as I've said so often, it should not be relegated to a box of "Black history" books that are hauled out once a year and then stored away until the next year. The best books are timely and timeless, as this one is. That's true of so many books by Lee and Low Publishers.
Don't miss this one.


  1. I just got this book from the library and am excited to read it.

    1. I hope you'll find it as fascinating and impressive as I did.


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