Breakthrough! How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever by Jim Murphy. Clarion, 2015. 144 pages.
The Patient: Middle grade/YA nonfiction about medicine and three medical pioneers in the 1940s
The Surgery: Alfred Blalock, chief surgeon (and white man), Vivien Thomas, Blalock’s research assistant (and African American man), and Helen Taussig, “blue babies” doctor (and white, partially deaf woman) team up to pioneer truly amazing heart surgery for babies and children suffering from “Blue Baby” syndrome, a condition in which oxygen isn’t being efficiently distributed throughout the body because of a heart defect.
The book tells much of the back story of the team: the racism and sexism that faced Thomas and Taussig, the general timeline leading to the meeting of the team and their placement at Johns Hopkins, and basic, related medical events and technology of the time period.
The Outcome: Murphy handles his subject well, using Thomas as the primary lens through which we experience the story. Blalock wasn’t as much of a racist as many of his fellow Southerners, but he still demonstrated plenty of unconscious moments of prejudice even while he stood up for his right-hand man and clearly tried to treat him with dignity. Thomas’s limitations due to his race and the time period are heart-breaking because he was clearly very talented and the key to the success of the surgery. Taussig faced her own struggles as a female doctor during a time when there were very few; her growing deafness only added to her challenges.
What impressed me the most, though, was the clear theme of the value of all human life: each person, regardless of race or gender, has distinct gifts and can make notable contributions. Even more, even babies who are about to die are worth the effort it took for the research team to pioneer the surgery and perform the surgery.
End matter is excellent: thorough source notes with further explanations, image credits, and an index
The Recovery: Due to the photographs (some are graphic–of things such as lynchings) and the medical terminology and descriptions (especially for the squeamish!), this is best for upper middle grades and YA audiences. A terrific addition to a school or public library, this would make a fascinating nonfiction read for a biology class. Even grown-ups will find this one engaging.