In his 75 years on earth, Vivien Thomas earned many titles: Janitor. Lab assistant. Surgical pioneer. Medical school instructor. Recipient of an honorary doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University.
But nearly 40 years after his death, the late genius, who helped create a life-saving cardiac surgery technique while battling racism and poverty, has earned a new distinction, one even a forward-thinker like himself could not have imagined — social media star.
Nov. 29 marked the 79th anniversary of the groundbreaking “blue baby” operation on a tiny little girl dying of an abnormality that prevented oxygen from getting to her heart. The team was led by Dr. Alfred Blalock, yet the procedure would have been impossible without the work of Thomas, his Black assistant whose contributions went officially uncredited for years.
But this year literal millions of viewers on TikTok and YouTube have watched content about Thomas, mostly through clips and commentary about “Something the Lord Made,” the Baltimore-set HBO movie about Thomas and Blalock starring Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey) and the late Alan Rickman, respectively.
I’m not sure exactly what’s responsible for the obvious interest in the story in 2023, which has been piqued a few times throughout the year. But with all the weirdness and out-and-out hate that’s baked into social media, as well as recent efforts to obscure the historical and current realities of racism, I am delighted that new generations are discovering the movie and Thomas himself.
The unexpected resurgence also gave me an excuse to rewatch “Something the Lord Made,” a long-time favorite of mine that I included in a column earlier this summer about Baltimore-related shows and films to rewatch during the Writers Guild of America strike. I wasn’t living here in 2004 during the HBO debut, but I remember how homesick it made me back in Florida to see gorgeous shots of the Hopkins’ Homewood campus and all that beautiful brick rowhome goodness.
Seeing the film now in my living room, about a mile from the hospital, I’m also reminded of how revolutionary it seemed, then and now, because it was not like too many of the civil rights-related movies I saw growing up. Those were often from the perspective of the white characters or implied an easy, feel-good fix and an unearned happy ending or last-minute heart-changing revelation.
Although it’s fictionalized, “Something the Lord Made” tells the truth in that Blalock, a Southerner, respected Thomas’ talent but not enough to pay him more or publicly give him credit for his contributions to the surgery that solidified the doctor’s legacy. Blalock did more than others would have, but as a viewer you’re never encouraged to believe that it’s enough. It was not. It’s a reminder that change is glacier slow, incremental and ultimately measured by those struggling valiantly to earn it, and not those who sit above them doling out progress according to their own comfort.
There are so many videos related to Thomas and the movie available, but TikTok user Rose of Tudor posted a clip in February in honor of Black History Month that has since been viewed 1.9 million times. It’s a short but pivotal scene during which Blalock realizes that he can’t do the surgery without Thomas, who left because it didn’t appear to be protocol for him to be there. He tries to have his assistant paged but the nurse refuses because hospital policy reserves that service for doctors. So Blalock, who doesn’t like being told no, grabs the phone and does it himself.
Over on YouTube, Nigerian American music artist Kingsley King has done several Thomas and “Something the Lord Made” videos, including one from September that’s garnered a staggering 5.6 million views and is set, movingly, to the beats of King’s own music. It’s a scene that’s also the subject of a TikTok clip by motivational account I Am Richard Hollis — an unsurprising move given that the video is about standing up for one’s own worth, a lesson that never gets old.
In it, Thomas is sneeringly informed by a fellow hospital worker played by the late Robert F. Chew (also known as Prop Joe from “The Wire”) that his lab coat doesn’t make him any more prestigious than anyone else. Both are Class 3 employees, with the lowest pay, and because Thomas didn’t go to college — his tuition money was lost in a failing bank — he’s not eligible for a raise. In a different movie, the filmmakers would have rewritten history and made Blalock march into the financial office and demand that Thomas make more money, or buck trends and give him public credit.
But that didn’t actually happen and it’s better to tell the truth. Thomas is stuck doing odd jobs, including catering at Blalock’s house, to help support his family. And when (movie spoiler alert) Thomas sneaks into the segregated Belvedere hotel to see Blalock honored for the blue baby surgery and mention everyone but Thomas, he quits for a while because it’s just not right. Even after Thomas’ return to the lab, which eventually finds him teaching that technique on his own, things are strained, and not until the very end of his life does Blalock admit his regrets. It’s heartbreaking and honest.
There’s a lot of recent nostalgia for the aughts, from fashion to pop culture, and I’m pleased that “Something the Lord Made” has become a part of that. It’s important, based on fact, and its messages are a lot more lasting than, say, the latest dance trend.