Who Are Your Role Models and Why?

A feature on the life and impact of Vivien Thomas

A common question to get people to interact is to ask, “Who is your role model?” Many raise or teach their children in the hopes that their kids will bring themselves up when the question is answered. Then others of us want to point the students to a myriad of individuals who overcame life’s hurdles to make significant impact in life. In this blog I will be focusing on Vivien Thomas.

I knew nothing about Thomas nor the physician, Dr. Alfred Blalock who he helped make famous before I was directed to invite a prominent black academic physician to attend the premier PBS Home Video showing of Partners of the Heart with the Black Caucus at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. GlaxoSmithKline, GSK, partnered with The Alfred Sloan Foundation, Liberty Mutual, Scotts, National Endowment for the Humanities, cpb, and PBS to fund the production of this documentary. I’m so glad they did.

Following this event, I was given a few copies of the video tape to share with the doctor who attended and keep one myself. I’m grateful as I needed to watch the video several times to catch all the history I was never taught. I also needed to re-watch it to inspire myself when feeling professionally inferior because I never paid for more initials like, RN, RpH, NP, PA, or MD that would enable me to get clinical job instead of just sales and marketing.

This became even more important to me when I fell back on what my undergraduate degree had trained me to do. I could no longer deliver the messages that I was mandated to do for big pharma, but I could return to the classroom to encourage and raise up a better generation who would restore the ethical environment I so longed to promote in health care and in other sectors.

Each February I found time to share this video in celebration of Black History month with my students. I wrote up questions to correspond and ensure students were engaged and personally reflecting on the story. It turned out to be a great lesson to pass onto a substitute teacher as my health declined.

My physical condition digressed to the point of making teaching an impractical option for me especially with a little one at home. So, I left the public classroom and switched to homeschooling my daughter.

Time wore on. VCRs and videos became obsolete. But I continued to keep a VCR player so that when my young one reached the age of reason she too could be blessed by watching this.

In 2004 HBO films decided to produce Something the Lord Made featuring Alan Rickman as Blalock and Mos Def as Vivien Thomas. As usual a different spin on the relationship and history between the two men filled out the story more.

The character traits that I found so inspiring in Viven Thomas were several. First, he taught how to not take disrespectful behavior from a superior in the most well mannered way. He calmly and respectfully told Dr. Blalock that he wouldn’t be treated that way after Blalock lost his temper and blamed Thomas. He was resigning. However Vivien was so winsome in his manner, that Blalock begged him not to quit, promised to never treat him that way again, and didn’t.

Secondly, Thomas never wallowed in self-pity even though he had many justified reasons to do so. He couldn’t go to medical school even though it was his plan. The stock market crashed. The money his dad saved to pay for him to go was gone. He made the best of what job options were available to him. He and his wife figured out how to live on menial job income.

Third, he never stooped to the level of the arrogant medical elite. Thomas dressed impeccably, walked confidently, and stayed humble in relation to The Lord God Creator. When he was treated poorly by the staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital during the Jim Crow era, he held his head high, didn’t fuss, and maintained his own good manners. He did what he could with the social circumstances of the day, but never reduced himself to yelling, ugly protests, or violence.

Lastly, and certainly not least, Vivien proved that education has nothing to do with the school attended or degree attained. Instead it has everything to do with personal attitude, ability to think, and desire to learn. 

The story between the two also taught me how different  Nashville and Baltimore were in the 1950-60’s. The cities today reap what they sowed then. 

There are many lessons in economics to be learned from this time as well. Here today and gone tomorrow. Borrower beware.

Learn history, black, white, yellow, and brown. There are good and bad role models in each with applicable lessons for improvement for all. #BlackhistoryMonth

For more information on Vivien Thomas visit


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