“Blue Baby” Working at Hopkins Had Heart Surgery 62 Years Ago

Nurse Practitioner Earned Degree at Hopkins as Well

Mary Joyner

Pediatric Nurse Mary Joyner in 2011 at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

While watching “Something the Lord Made,” I felt my heart thud. Just like that it hit me. I had been among those “blue babies.” The 2004 movie dramatized the partnership of pediatric cardiologist Helen Taussig, surgeon Alfred Blalock and surgical technician Vivien Thomas, who together pioneered the 1944 surgery at Johns Hopkins that ushered in the modern era of cardiac surgery. Their procedure corrected tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital malformation of the heart also known as “Blue Baby syndrome” because it deprived babies born with the condition of sufficient oxygen.

When I was born in East Baltimore in 1948, a community doctor, concerned by the sound of my heart, told my mother to take her sickly infant home and to pray. He did not know that pediatric heart defects were being studied at Hopkins, only blocks away. I wasn’t referred to Johns Hopkins until I was almost 2 years old. My first corrective surgery was closed heart, my second, when I was 11, was open heart. From that point on my life changed—I was no longer a shy child.

During my lengthy recovery, I read my favorite literary fare— comic books my mother bought at secondhand shops. I’d lie there on what was then called a “high-climber,” a hospital bed with a tall back, engrossed in the lives of Archie and Veronica. I liked chatting with the many nurses and doctors who stopped by. I knew this much to be true—Johns Hopkins had paid for the surgeries that saved my life, and that one day I was going to work there.

In 1970, I earned a nursing degree, and in 1973 applied for a job at Hopkins and began my career in the pediatric intensive care unit. A year or two later, after working in child psychiatry and the outpatient clinic, I became interested in becoming a nurse practitioner and earned my degree at Hopkins.

Now history is repeating itself. Quite a few of my former patients are now nurses themselves. Dreams can come true—they did for me. Johns Hopkins saved my life, helped me further my education and provided a career I love.

Author Mary Joyner is a clinical nurse practitioner in the Harriet Lane Clinic at Hopkins Children’s. She specializes in the care of children and young adults in its Intensive Primary Care Clinic.

This article first appeared in the spring 2012 issue of Hopkins Children's Magazine.