Cardiac procedure renamed at SickKids in honour of surgical pioneer Vivien Thomas
In 1944, Vivien Thomas, a Black laboratory technician, stood behind Dr. Alfred Blalock and guided him through a revolutionary heart procedure at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The Blalock-Thomas-Taussig (BTT) shunt, an often life-saving procedure that is still used today, offered hope to families of children with forms of congenital heart disease by helping to increase blood flow to the lungs.
Thomas had dedicated his work to the development of this surgical procedure alongside Drs. Alfred Blalock and Helen Taussig, and yet in the report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1945 about the procedure, Thomas’ name was absent. The procedure became known as the Blalock-Taussig (BT) shunt procedure and remained that way for decades to come.
When Donna Rousell, a Registered Nurse at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), first heard this story while listening to online lectures in May 2022 she was shocked, and immediately brought it to the attention of Tee Garnett, Executive Lead and Strategic Advisor, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI).
“Blalock and Taussig are household names in the world of paediatric cardiology. I thought to myself, how could I have worked in that field for 15 years and never heard Thomas’ name?” says Rousell. “I wanted everyone to know his story.”
Moving from awareness to action
Thanks to Rousell, Garnett established a working group to formally change the procedure’s name to the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig (BTT) shunt in materials across the hospital.
The working group, coordinated by Nazanine Gholami, Senior Project Manager in the Cardiac Critical Care & Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, set out to identify places throughout SickKids – from education materials to reporting systems to website updates – that referenced the procedure and formally change them to ‘BTT shunt’.
“Thomas’ contributions to the revolutionary BTT shunt procedure are indisputable,” says Gholami. “This initiative was made possible by the commitment and motivation of people across SickKids to take action and do their part to acknowledge Thomas’ legacy.”
Six months later, the working group shared their accomplishments with the SickKids community by unveiling a plaque commemorating Thomas’ work in November 2022.
Creating meaningful change
For Rousell, this moment was more than a celebration -- it sent the message that change is possible when people speak up.
“At SickKids, we don’t just accept things the way things are, and that perfectly positions us to set initiatives like the BTT shunt name change into motion,” says Rousell. “By recognizing and celebrating the contributions of people of colour, you are administering an antidote to negative stereotypes and providing role models to a new generation of scientists, researchers and innovators.”
Together, Nazanine Gholami and Rousell have presented this work to EDI groups at other hospitals, and Rousell says she has been motivated to seek out more opportunities to create a more inclusive environment at SickKids.
“All it takes is one individual to see an opportunity for change and spark action,” says Garnett. “Through SickKids’ EDI Strategy, we are carving out safer and brave spaces for individuals like Donna Rousell to start conversations that result in real systemic changes and positive outcomes for SickKids staff, patients and families.”
Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy
Our Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Strategy provides a path to boldly embed EDI in all that SickKids does so all can feel acknowledged, valued and respected.