Winning Essay by Allison B. from Georgia
Though he died before my sister was born, Vivien Thomas saved her life. Mr. Thomas, an African-American surgical technician, was a pioneer in cardiac surgery, yet because of his race, he did not receive the recognition bestowed upon his Caucasian partners. In the mid-1930’s, Mr. Thomas developed a now-common procedure used to treat a subset of congenital heart defects, a corrective surgery to provide adequate oxygenation to blue babies whose cardiovascular defects prevented adequate blood flow from reaching their lungs. My sister- and thousands like her- owe their lives to Mr. Thomas, yet the life-saving procedure carries not his name, but that of Dr. Blalock, the white doctor who requested Mr. Thomas as his assistant.
Mr. Thomas was a bright and scholarly student who had hoped to ultimately attend medical school. However, facing poverty and with no money for tuition, he abandoned his plan to attend college and became a carpenter. After losing this job and sinking deeper into the Great Depression, Mr. Thomas secured employment as a surgical research technician, assisting Dr. Blalock with cardiac research at Vanderbilt University. Classified and paid as a janitor, yet performing post-doctoral-level research, Thomas worked tirelessly under the direction of Dr. Blalock to develop improved operative techniques, including the creation of infant-sized needles, silk threads, and other miniaturized equipment scaled for use on children. As he perfected his surgical techniques on animals, he was asked by his mentor to transfer to Johns Hopkins University as a surgical assistant. It was there that he coached Dr. Blalock in the first ever-attempted surgery to restore oxygenated blood flow in a ‘blue baby.’ Mr. Thomas persevered to blaze new trails in cardiac research by refining operative techniques, designing surgical equipment, and training hundreds of surgeons on life-saving cardiac operations, ultimately benefiting tens of thousands of patients with heart defects.
Mr. Thomas achieved these lofty goals despite facing poverty, racism, inequality in the workplace, persistent lack of recognition, and disparate treatment. Rather than surrendering to the negativity, oppression and messages of ‘less than,’ Mr. Thomas believed in himself and demanded ‘more,’ pursuing his passion of medicine and finding ways to contribute outside the societal norms of his era. Rather than becoming angry and argumentative, or conceding to a lesser place in the workforce, he challenged himself to be the best he could be, to rise above artificial barriers and to demand more of himself than others thought possible. As I embark on my college career, one that appears without limitation, I do not expect to face such adversity, a self-demeaning environment telling me ‘no.’ Yet along my path, as failure and disappointment will no doubt appear, I hope to draw on the inspiration of Mr. Thomas to continue forward, remaining true to my goals and my character, giving my best in all circumstances, not for external accolades but for the satisfaction of working hard as part of a greater cause.

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