Mixing documentary with a smattering of docu-drama, producer-director Andrea Kalin’s “Partners of the Heart” is the powerful story of a young black man, Vivien Thomas, who, despite the Depression and the pervasive racism in the Jim Crow South, was still able to realize his dreams. Thomas, who started as an assistant to young white heart surgeon Alfred Blalock with the job classification of janitor, rose to become a vital partner in a team which pioneered historic medical breakthroughs in open heart surgery, and trained some of the world’s top surgeons. Due to racism, Thomas was not recognized for his achievements and suffered many indignities, including having to serve as bartender and waiter at functions for his white peers and the students he was training. Narrated by the venerable Morgan Freeman, docu will air on PBS’ American Experience in 2003.
With his life savings wiped out by the Depression, Thomas’ dreams of attending college and becoming a doctor were dashed. He took a job as a lab assistant at Vanderbilt U. medical school working for Blalock. Blalock quickly discovered the talents of the 19-year-old Thomas, who had no formal medical training and only a high school education. Before long, Thomas became a trusted research aid to Blalock, despite being classified as a janitor to get around racial restrictions in the Jim Crow South.
When Blalock was offered a position as chief of surgery at Johns Hopkins U., he took Thomas with him, and together they did pioneering work in the field of heart surgery, and trained some of the world’s top surgeons. It wasn’t until 1976, when Thomas was 66 years old and the bastions of segregation were being torn down, that the trail-blazer finally was recognized, receiving an honorary doctorate and official appointment to the faculty of Johns Hopkins.
Staged sequences by director Bill Duke, beautifully shot by John Rhode and narrated by Freeman, help illustrate the action, with many of the principles no longer alive.