To Heal the Heart of a Child

To Heal the Heart of a Child
Author:  Joyce Baldwin


This book charts the inspiring life of Helen Taussig as she made medical history when she innovated the groundbreaking surgery that brought hope to countless babies born with fatal congenital cardiac defects. The book depicts how she, as a woman and a non-surgeon, had ‘the inspiration to imagine’ the groundbreaking complex surgical procedure, and the tenacity to overcome ‘many obstacles‘ and push it through to implementation. The book also highlights the personal challenges and setbacks Taussig conquered to make her mark – from early childhood dyslexia to late life hearing loss. Beyond her role in developing congenital cardiac heart surgery, the book also explored the wider influence she had on her specialty, from her seminal textbook on congenital cardiac malformations which had a great influence on the development of the specialty, to her investigation of the then emerging thalidomide disaster, warning her colleagues and her country quite early of its dangers. This book is also an exploration of Taussig’s many interests outside of medicine, from her support for women’s and civil rights, to a lifelong interest in music, gardening, swimming and boating (pages 1-2, 7, 70-73, 85, 88-96 and 41-43).

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Although prejudice directed at women venturing into the male-dominated field of medicine was ubiquitous in Taussig’s time, this seemed to have posed only a minor obstacle to her early career path –  such as when she was set apart from the male students in her histology classes. On the contrary, her medical career was positively influenced by many male figures. For example, the author noted that her biology and anatomy professors recognised her ability, skill, and intelligence, and encouraged and supported her ambition to become a doctor and heart specialist. The book also referred to the generous recommendation of the influential physiologist, Walter Cannon, which facilitated her entry to Johns Hopkins Medical School when it began admitting female medical students. The author similarly mentioned that Edward Albert Park, the head of the paediatric department, ‘became her mentor and her most significant teacher of medicine’, and later recommended her to head the newly established paediatric cardiology clinic (pages 18-28 and 37).

Broken Heart. Choo Yut Shing on Flickr.

Taussig’s personality formed a core theme of the book and the author explored the early life influences that moulded her character and drove her achievements. In this account, the author pointed to the effect of her family heritage, particularly citing her high achieving father – an esteemed professor of economics at Harvard University – from whom she imbibed the lessons of being ‘kind and caring‘, and of turning ‘a negative experience into a positive lesson’. The book also described the character traits that dominated her clinical practice, and these included love and compassion for her patients which the author said she expressed through her touch, her look, and her patience. Another quality which Taussig deployed throughout her life was perseverance in facing up to challenges; this was perhaps best illustrated by the way she overcame dyslexia and learnt to read even though, the author pointed out, ‘reading would always remain a chore for her’. She similarly overcame the ‘sudden and severe loss of hearing‘ that developed just when she started practicing as a paediatric cardiologist, the book describing how she learned to lip read, to ‘listen with her hands’, and to use ‘a special stethoscope with amplified sound’. Other prominent aspects of her character which the book discussed were her curiosity, her feistiness, her strong will, and ‘a temper that was unleashed at times’ (pages 4-17, 38-40, 46 and 75).

Coronary arteries. Crossett Library on Flickr.

The most inspiring theme of the book is how Taussig figured out the solution to the problem of congenital heart diseases. The author attributed this to her familiarity with a fluoroscopy X ray machine – a ‘basic and rather simple equipment’ – with which she ‘began peering into unknown territory’, and with which she took ‘her first peek at a beating heart inside the body’. Remarking that fluoroscopy helped her to see ‘things no one had seen ever before’, the author documented how it enabled her to recognise the manifestations of specific forms of cardiac defects. The book also narrated how she understood these defects better when she studied them with Dr Maud Abbott, a leading expert on these disorders. The book highlighted Taussig’s realisation that ‘the children were dying not because their hearts failed, but because they were not getting enough blood to the lungs to be saturated with oxygen‘. It also remarked that this provided her with the insight to the surgical procedures that may mitigate the consequences of different cardiac defects. For example, the book said she envisaged how an operation to keep open the ductus arteriosus can relieve the cyanosis of tetralogy of Fallot (pages 37 and 47-52).

The Broken Heart Memorial. William Murphy on Flickr.

The book provided a vivid portrayal of the first surgery to correct a congenital heart defect – building a ductus arteriosus to improve oxygenation and correct cyanosis. Having failed to convince Dr Robert Gross, a paediatric surgeon who had previously closed the ductus to treat patent ductus arteriosus, to undertake the procedure, the book described how Taussing convinced Dr Alfred Blalock, a cardiac surgeon who had just started work at Johns Hopkins, to investigate her ideas. The book described how Blalock’s ‘exceptional‘ Black laboratory assistant, Vivien Thomas, applied his ‘intelligence and problem-solving abilities‘ to perfect the operation on more than two hundred dogs. Depicting events as they unfolded in the operating theatre at Johns Hopkins Hospital on the 29th of November 1944 , the book recounted how ‘surgical history was in the making’ when Thomas guided Blalock to a successful outcome. This achievement was instrumental to the accolades that Taussig earned in life – an overdue appointment as the first woman professor at Johns Hopkins in 1959, numerous honorary degrees, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, induction into the American Women’s Hall of Fame, and election as the first female president of the American Heart Association (pages 52-64, 84-85, and 110-122).

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An enlightening theme of the book is its explanation of the congenital cardiac defects that Taussig set out to correct. In doing this, the author traced the history of the understanding of these disorders to Ettiene Louise Fallot who demonstrated the components of the tetralogy that now bears his name, and which was responsible for three quarters of cyanosed children. The author also illustrated the severe manifestations of these cardiac defects with the case of Eileen Saxon, the fifteen month old child who was the first patient to undergo the surgery. The author said Eileen ‘was so critically ill that nurses and doctors tending her thought she might die at any moment’. The author described how Eileen experienced recurrent fast and deep breathing spells, cyanotic attacks, and episodes of loss of consciousness, and how she ‘could sleep only on her stomach with her knees drawn up, a position which facilitated her intake of air’. The author also illustrated the impact of the corrective surgery on patients with the example of Mary Walker who remembered that it was only after her operation that she ever saw her fingers pink-coloured, ‘go to school and have friends‘, and be able to ‘run and play and jump and do anything anyone else did’ (pages 45-46, 57-60 and 68-69).

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The book eloquently conveys the incredible feat that Helen Taussig envisioned and implemented. In their own right, these are outstanding, but in view of her disabilities, and in the context of her gender – at a time when the abilities of female doctors were not recognised – her feat attains added significance and engenders heightened inspiration. The impact of her work on lives saved, and families relieved, can only be imagined. The book’s narrative is generally focused although the latter part was slightly drawn out. This nevertheless provided a rather complete picture of Taussig’s equally remarkable life after her defining feat. The enduring impact of her work, and the lasting legacy of her life, are indeed worthy of celebration.

Overall assessment

This book commemorates a remarkable woman doctor and her innovative work. With a focused narrative and a sensitive tone, the book chronicles her full life, noting early life influences and challenges, and highlighting her wider interests outside of medicine – a trait that marks most high achievers. This is an inspiring story for healthcare, and I recommend the book to all doctors.

Book details

Publisher, Place, Year: Walker and Company, New York, 1992
Number of chapters: 9
Number of pages: 128
ISBN: 978-027-8166-7
Star rating: 5
Price: £141.47

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