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Happy Birthday, Cardiac Surgery

Sixty years ago, on Nov. 29, 1944, Alfred Blalock performed his first shunt procedure on a child with tetralogy of Fallot (a complex heart defect) right here at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The “blue baby surgery,” a groundbreaking procedure that would save the lives of countless children, is widely considered the dawn of cardiac surgery, says Vincent Gott, director of cardiac surgery from 1965 to 1982. Now well documented in TV movies such as Partners of the Heart and Something the Lord Made, the first patient was a very cyanotic 15-month-old infant who did quite well clinically but later died from other complications.

This classic photo, however, was taken during the second case, performed on Feb. 3, 1945. Blalock operates on the far side of the table, with Vivien Thomas, his senior laboratory technician, close behind him. At the head of the operating table is Olive Berger, a staff nurse anesthetist who did most of the cases for Blalock. (Anesthesiology chief Austin Lamont was on the first case.) The patient is a 9-year-old girl. The tall man to the right is Denton Cooley, an intern on Blalock's service. To Cooley's right is William Longmire, chief resident and Blalock's first assistant for the procedure. An unidentified nurse is at the foot of the table, and another unknown stands at Blalock's left. Not pictured, but likely in the room was Helen Taussig, a pediatric cardiologist and the other brain behind the "Blalock-Taussig procedure," as it became known.

By 1950, Blalock and his team had performed over 1,000 Blalock-Taussig shunt operations and cardiac surgery was well established as a new surgical specialty.

 

 

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