Valentine’s Day – which we just celebrated on Monday — is the season of love, and understanding the beauty of the heart at a time like this can be a beautiful thing. A broken heart, though, is a painful thing and it takes only a glance to know when a person has one. But understanding the beauty of the heart is a matter of the mind.
Black history tells us that Dr. Vivien Thomas was a man who not only understood the heart, but he also had a beautiful one. A janitor in the medical science lab at Vanderbilt, Dr. Thomas rose to earn an honorary doctorate for his outstanding work in cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins University. Working at a post-doctoral researcher level, with only a high school education, Dr. Thomas designed life-saving instruments for the heart, despite racism, degradation and insults.
Understanding the hearts of people like Vivien Thomas is a struggle. Most of us could not have been a janitor and a doctor at the same time, because our egos would have created too much tension between our minds and our hearts.
But, with a positive attitude about life, Dr. Thomas grew in knowledge and wisdom of medicine, as he grew in understanding the beauty of the heart. Though he started out cleaning animal cages, it was his mechanical gifts, and his hand-and-eye coordination, that caught the eye of Dr. Alfred Blalock at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Blalock, a brilliant surgeon, but known for his ego, soon became chief of surgery at his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University. Ambitiously, he continued to exploit Vivien Thomas’ skills by taking him to Johns Hopkins with him and using him as lab assistant while he was still being paid as a janitor.
With a positive motivation, Thomas became known as a medical genius for assisting Blalock and for his work designing the tools used in the first pediatric open-heart surgery. Despite his frustrations, Thomas, a humble man with a positive attitude, kept advancing his understanding the beauty of the heart and medicine.
Thomas’ inventions made Blalock famous, as it was Thomas who created life-saving cardiac techniques for children suffering from “blue baby syndrome,” a fatal four-part heart anomaly.
Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Jeremiah’s statement implies we all have a problem being honest with ourselves. Our attitudes and motivations can turn our hearts ugly or beautiful.
Jeremiah 17:10 reads, “The Lord searches the mind and tries the heart.” It is the motives of our hearts that God tests while simultaneously searching our minds to check our attitudes. Our hearts’ motivations either choke us with worldly cares or free us to live wonderfully productive lives. When we understand the beauty of the heart, we find our hearts to be the center of our positive attitudes, positive motivations and positive faith.
Thomas’ life is a case-study in positive faith. In his autobiography, Partners of the Heart, he talks about his work with Blalock. You will not find any malice or hatred in it.
In Luke 8:15, Christ states, “Those with noble and good hearts, hear the Word of God, retain it and by persevering produce a good crop.” Mind and heart together create positive attitude and positive motivation and they determine positive faith. Though underpaid and denied the opportunity to get his degree, Thomas bloomed where God had planted him, for he truly understood the beauty of the heart.
As God’s word fell on his “noble heart,” he retained it and produced a good medical crop. Once, Blalock, while examining Thomas’ work, remarked, “Vivien, this looks like ‘something the Lord made,’ which became the title of an HBO movie on Thomas’ life.
The Rev. Dr. R. Joaquin Willis is pastor of the Church of the Open Door at 6001 NW 8th Ave., Miami. To contact the church, call 305-759-0373 or e-mail the pastor at firstname.lastname@example.org.