Affairs of the Heart: Dr. Helen Taussig
❤ On a late November day in 1944, bright sunlight streamed upon the blue-tinged body of 18 month old Eileen Saxon, who was hovering near death. Born with a congenital heart defect that prevented her blood from being oxygenated by her lungs, she now weighed little more than 9 pounds. Across the ocean, World War II raged on, but at the Johns Hopkins University hospital in Baltimore, another type of history was being made. Under the gaze of 706 doctors gathered around, Dr. Alfred Blalock meticulously rerouted an artery heading to the child’s arm, back to the lungs giving the oxygen-starved blood a second chance of rejuvenation. The anesthesiologist cried out in astonishment as Eileen’s lips turned from blue to a healthy red. That was the start of a successful procedure that would cure thousands of “blue babies” in the brand new era of heart surgery that followed. Today, we remember Dr. Helen Taussig, whose brilliant idea it was that set the stage.
❤ Born on this day, May 24, in 1898, Helen took medical classes at both Harvard and Boston Universities although neither would award her a degree because of her gender. Worse, she was forbidden to speak to her male colleagues in histology class because of fears that she would “contaminate” them. She completed her MD degree at Johns Hopkins and there, as a pediatric cardiologist did extensive work with anoxemia, or blue baby syndrome. She noticed that blue babies with an additional heart defect (called PDA) fared better, and that a shunt that mimicked PDA could be the solution. She pitched the idea of getting more blood to the lungs much “as a plumber changes pipes around” to surgeon Alfred Blalock and his technician Vivien Thomas. Thomas, a black man whose education did not go beyond high school, practiced the surgery in the animal lab and after modifying instruments for use in humans, coached Dr. Blalock through the first hundred surgeries in infants. In 1976, Hopkins awarded him an honorary doctorate. Sadly, little Eileen became cyanotic again in a few months and did not survive past 2 years even though other babies would go on to live healthy lives. Today, a modified version of the shunt is performed using a synthetic Gore-Tex graft (lower right image).
¸¸.•*¨*•♫ Happy Birthday, Dr. Taussig!
Image Note: Helen Taussig became deaf in later years, and actually used her fingers rather than a stethoscope to feel the rhythm of heartbeats.