Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks, illustrated by Colin Bootman

Tiny Stitches is an excellent picture book for older readers about this fascinating life-saving pioneer in heart surgery.

When Vivien Thomas was a young boy, his dream was to enter the medical field.  As a teen, Vivien helped his father, a master carpenter in Nashville, Tennessee, who taught him the value of patient measuring, cutting and fitting together pieces of wood, skills that would definitely be valuable to Vivien later on.

Vivien saved his money for medical school, but by the time he was ready to go, the stock market had crashed and he lost all his savings. Luckily, he was able to get a job as a lab assistant working in Dr. Alfred Blalock's Vanderbilt University laboratory.

Thanks to Dr. Blalock, Vivien learned how to write lab reports and conduct experiments with the same kind of meticulous care he had used while working for his father, so it wasn't long before he was doing his own experiments.  But when he learned that his official job title was janitor because he was African American, he was insulted.  He confronted Dr. Blalock, asking for and receiving the same paid as white technicians.

When Dr. Blalock moved to Johns Hopkins in Maryland, Vivien and his wife and two daughters went with him.  Maryland is a southern state, and Johns Hopkins was more segregated that Vanderbilt was, so Vivien faced a more strident racism than he was used to.

But it was there that Vivien got involved in the research Dr. Helen Taussig's research on "blue babies," patients born with a heart defect that made their skin appear bluish because they did not get enough oxygen and usually died.

Thanks to his patient and meticulous research and experiments, Vivien was able to develop a procedure for delivering blood directly to the lungs to provide oxygen to a baby's body, using the tiny needle Vivien invented to make the tiny stitches needed to suture the arteries involved.

Was Vivien's procedure a success?  Yes, it was, with articles about it in Time and Life magazines, and eventually a Nobel Prize nomination.  Was Vivien given credit along with Dr. Blalock and Dr. Taussig?  No, not until 26 years after the first successful blue baby surgery.

It remained up to the doctors he has subsequently trained in his procedure to do that in 1971, and finally, in 1976, Johns Hopkins awarded Vivien an honorary doctorate and appointed him to the faculty as Instructor of Surgery (with the appropriate salary, hopefully).

I thought that Gwendolyn Hooks presented the obstacles Vivien Thomas faced because of his race with clarity and dignity.  I have to admit I was disappointed that there was no indication (and I'm sure that is because it didn't happen) that the two doctors Vivien had worked so closely with and whose life saving surgery was successful because of his experiments never insisted that he also be given credit.

I found this to be an excellent and inspiring story.  Colin Bootman's soft, realistic watercolor illustrations add depth and respect to a man who had to give up his dream of medical school and deal with the racism he faced at every turn, but who accomplished so much despite the obstacles in his way.

Hooks has included some interesting back matter, namely more about blue babies and Vivien Thomas, a useful glossary, and the source's she used to write this book.

Tiny Stitches is an excellent addition to any STEM library.  It is also the kind of book I never would have read as a young reader simply because it probably wouldn't have existed.  But, thankfully, that's beginning to change now so that more and more we are being introduced to heroes of color that we never would have known about otherwise.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was iBook received from Edelweiss/Above the Treeline and the publisher, Lee & Low Books

Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge is a weekly celebration of 
nonfiction books hosted by Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy 


  1. I enjoyed this book and story about Vivien Thomas, too, Alex, and love that stories like his are being written so we can know the history never told in earlier years. Thanks!

  2. This is such a great story of dignity in the face of prejudice, and perseverance in the face of terrible hardship. What an inspiration to young people to never lose faith in themselves, no matter what other people might say or how they might treat them. A truly inspiring story.


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