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HBO film focuses on medical innovators

The new HBO movie, "Something the Lord Made," focuses on a white doctor and his black lab assistant, and how they made history.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Not so long ago, the idea of performing heart surgery was medical blasphemy. After the Hippocratic oath, surgeons followed another dictum: “Don’t touch the heart.”

Dr. Alfred Blalock, a brash, egotistical Georgia native who in 1943 was named head of surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, changed that. But he wasn’t alone.

“Something the Lord Made,” a polished and compelling movie that premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, also credits Blalock’s lab assistant: Vivien Thomas, a quiet, introspective man with a fertile mind and incomparably skilled hands.

Why wasn’t Thomas recognized at the time? Because he was black. Even now, his accomplishments haven’t gotten wide attention.

“I did an informal survey at Hopkins,” said the film’s director, Joseph Sargent, “and I was shocked to find out how few workers at the hospital ever heard of Vivien Thomas, and how few doctors had heard of him.”

“Something the Lord Made” — the title comes from Blalock’s description of a shunt Thomas stitches into a dog’s heart — sets out to change that. It opens in 1930, when Thomas (Mos Def) gets a job working for Blalock (Alan Rickman) at Vanderbilt University.

Thomas, a talented carpenter, is dismayed at first at taking a glorified janitorial position. But Blalock quickly recognizes Thomas’ steady hands and sharp mind, and puts him to work performing experimental surgeries on dogs.

Jumping ahead 13 years, Blalock is hired at Hopkins, and Thomas goes with him. There, Dr. Helen Taussig (Mary Stuart Masterson) confronts Blalock with the dilemma of “blue babies” — infants born with a heart defect that keeps their bodies from getting enough oxygen, turning them blue. At the time, the condition was fatal.

Blalock recognizes his chance to make history, and once Thomas replicates the condition in a dog, they find a way to perform a heart bypass to save the animal. That leads to the first heart surgery performed on a human. It is a success — but only after Blalock, defying his colleagues, brings Thomas to the operating table with him.

It’s the highlight of a working relationship that lasts for decades, despite disputes initiated by Thomas over his pay and Blalock’s abrasive demeanor.

A love storyThomas earns Blalock’s respect in the lab, but the surgeon doesn’t exactly treat his assistant as a colleague — and he doesn’t mention Thomas’ contributions when the international medical community showers him with accolades.

“I think there was an inadvertent emotional need that Blalock had to go into some kind of unconscious denial,” Sargent said. “I would imagine he was so protective of this adulation and acclaim that he suddenly found coming his way, that it was convenient emotionally to not give Vivien Thomas the credit he deserved.”

Sargent adds: “I became conscious somewhere in the middle of shooting that we were actually doing a love story. There’s anger, there’s hate, there’s disenchantment, and there’s a certain amount of denial, which is what makes the whole thing very complex and challenging.”

The movie boasts strong performances from a somewhat unlikely cast. Rickman is known for velvety-voiced British villains, and rapper Mos Def, who has received strong reviews for his work on stage, is best known to movie audiences for a comic supporting role in “The Italian Job.”

“I had not heard of Mos Def, and I didn’t know why he had that name. Then I discovered it was because his favorite phrase was ’most definitely,”’ Sargent said. “It was such a pleasant surprise to find out the extent of his acting talent, as someone with no advance notice as to whether he could even act or not.”

Executive producer Robert Cort was struck by how easily Mos Def slipped into Thomas’ shoes.

“Vivien Thomas was defined by his dignity and his intelligence, and I think Mos is (too),” Cort said. “He’s not an out-there guy in the sense of a big, overwhelming personality or carrying himself with a big entourage. He’s thoughtful and extraordinarily intelligent.”

In keeping with Thomas’ reserved demeanor, the movie dramatizes his conflicts with Blalock subtly — without a lot of confrontation or histrionics.

“They were both Southern gentlemen,” Mos Def said. “I don’t think Dr. Thomas was concerned with worldly recognition as much as just general respect from his colleague, Dr. Blalock. I think that hurt him more than not being on some sort of world stage.”