Each February we celebrate Valentine’s Day and Black History Month.
There is an important, but seldom if ever mentioned, connective link.
Here it is briefly: Valentine’s Day’s symbol is a heart, and an African-American doctor performed the first reported open-heart surgery.
That doctor’s story is the first chapter of N.C. State University professor Rob Dunn’s book, “The Man Who Touched His Own Heart.”
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In the summer of 1893, the year of the World’s Fair in Chicago, Daniel Hale Williams, “a young doctor from the rough side of town, would make the biggest decision of his life,” Dunn wrote.
Williams had organized Provident Hospital, where African-American nurses and doctors could train, because other Chicago hospitals excluded them. When James Cornish was stabbed in the chest in a barroom brawl, he ended up at Provident. Williams could do little more than clean up his patient’s surface wounds and monitor the heart. He could not know exactly what damage the heart had sustained. Initially, Cornish and his heart were stable. But overnight the heartbeat became fainter and fainter.
Death seemed inevitable. But Williams was determined to act. He cut open Cornish’s chest, lifted up one of his ribs, inspected the then-visible heart, assessed the wound, and sewed up a damaged pericardium tissue that surrounded Cornish’s heart, hoping that this repair would stabilize the organ.
Cornish lived another 38 years.
Dunn writes, “That such a major advance was made in a poor hospital by an African-American doctor and African-American nurses just 31 years after the Emancipation Proclamation is astonishing. We tend to regard technology as the source of many innovations, and yet Williams’ advance was something different, progress through some combination of hubris, intellect and will.”
Although it later turned out that another doctor had performed a similar surgery two years earlier, Dunn’s asserts, “Williams’ prominent surgery was the one that made doctors aware of what was possible with a knife, sewing needle and some catgut.”
Talking to National Public Radio’s Melissa Block about his book, Dunn suggested that Williams’s place on the fringe of medicine might have contributed to his amazing achievement. Dunn said, “And he did it in part because he was working in a hospital with few resources where he had just developed the ability to do really hard and impossible things … to do what others couldn’t.”
The heart-wrenching story of Dr. Williams’s success is Dunn’s introduction to a chronicle of discoveries, procedures and inventions relating to the heart. The book’s title comes from a story about how a cocky German was determined to show that he could move a tube through human veins into the heart. In 1929, unable to get permission to try out his idea on a live patient, he cut into a vein in his own arm, inserted a tube and pushed it all the way into his heart. He then marched down to the x-ray room in his clinic where he had a picture made to prove that that he had “touched his own heart.”
Dunn leads his readers through the history of heart treatments, telling compelling stories about the people who brought about new techniques in surgery, heart-lung machines, mechanical hearts, blue-baby treatments, transplants and the technical techniques to fight rejection, and pacemakers. We learn how the plaque that builds up in our blood vessels may be the result of an evolutionary quirk not shared with chimpanzees or any other animal cousins.
Almost every story richly combines important scientific achievements with the human interests of the achievers. But none more so than that what Dr. Williams did.
Next year during Black History Month let’s remember Williams with big valentine hearts showing his name boldly featured.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon (preempted through the end of March) and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. Preview the upcoming program on UNC-MX digital channel (Time Warner #1276) on Fridays at 9 p.m. This week’s (Feb. 26) guest is the late John Hope Franklin, author of “Mirror to America.”