An Unlikely Partnership

Vivien Theodore Thomas first met Dr. Alfred Blalock, to interview for research assistant position in Blalock’s animal laboratory. He got the job and was performing complex surgeries on laboratory dogs within a month. What he thought was a temporary position, turned into decades long career and partnership. Together, Dr. Thomas and Dr. Blalock went on to deconstruct the pathophysiology of shock, surgically correct Tetralogy of Fallot in so called ‘Blue Babies’ and invent modern cardiac surgery.

At this point dear reader, you might be wondering, what is so unlikely about this partnership? Is it not common for brilliant doctors to collaborate with each other in the interest of advancing medical science? Not so for Vivien and Alfred, for the year was 1930. Outside the walls of their laboratory the world seethed with prejudice. One was a high school graduate who aspired to medical school, while the other received his MD from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. One apprenticed as a carpenter to make ends meet, while the other became chief resident in surgery. One watched his dream of becoming a doctor slip away with the onset of the Great Depression, while the other joined the faculty of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. One was black, while the other was white. History agreed they should’ve never met, but history was wrong.

Together, Vivien and Alfred did pioneering work that led to better understanding and treatment of hemorrhagic shock. Vivien was paid a janitor’s wage while fulfilling the role of a senior research fellow, for there were no other black men doing what he did. Alfred intervened and Vivien’s pay went up, but he never found out if they reclassified him as a researcher. In a few years, Dr. Blalock received a lucrative offer from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. However, that hospital had a policy against hiring black men. Vivien could not go with him, so Alfred refused.

Eventually, they moved their laboratory to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where Dr. Blalock was appointed surgeon-in-chief and Vivien became the first black man there to wear the white lab coat. In that deeply segregated institution, they were confronted by the challenge of cyanotic babies with Tetralogy of Fallot, a birth defect in their heart. Vivien took up the task of recreating this defect in canine hearts and he successfully devised a surgical procedure to treat the defect. When Alfred first performed this procedure on Eileen Saxon, an infant who weighed nine pounds, Vivien stood behind him and coached him through the surgery. The surgery was a success and they made history. However, the warm light of recognition, when it came, fell only on Dr. Blalock. This did not deter Vivien, who quietly and efficiently went about supervising his laboratory research, while also training the next generation of surgeons in heart surgery. Even though he had the admiration and respect of his colleagues and trainees, he was not officially recognized for his tremendous contributions until many years later. Johns Hopkins University finally presented him with an Honorary Doctorate in 1976 and he served as a faculty member till 1985.

When I first walked into the Blalock building in Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, I was struck by the portraits of two men, one black and one white, they were Dr. Alfred Blalock and Dr. Vivien Thomas, still seemingly engaged in unending dialogue.


An Exercise in Sagacity


Our hero, Yudhishtira, is chasing after a deer, when he happens by a beautiful lake. There, he is confronted by a Yaksha, who promises to kill him if he fails to answer the questions put to him, correctly. It is a test of wisdom and judgement.

This is a snippet called ‘Yaksha Prashna’ i.e ‘Questions of the Righteous Crane’, from the epic poem, Mahabharatha.  I have included here, the questions that I found interesting, under the assumption that some cranes are naturally righteous.

Yaksha: What is more abundant than the Earth?
Yudhishtira: One’s mother.

Yaksha: What towers higher than the sky?
Yudhishtira: One’s father

Yaksha: What is faster than the wind?
Yudhishtira: The mind

Yaksha: What are more numerous than the stars?
Yudhishtira: Our worries

Yaksha: Which enemy is invincible?
Yudhishtira: Anger

Yaksha: What is an incurable disease?
Yudhishtira: Greed

Yaksha: What is that which, when renounced, makes one lovable?
Yudhishtira: Pride

Yaksha: Who is truly happy?
Yudhishtira: One who has no debts.

Yaksha: What is the greatest wonder?
Yudhishtira: Day after day countless people die. Yet the living wish to live forever.

Frisson de Shambhala 


Over the course of our journey through time, we have come to believe in many legends. The most thrilling ones, are those surrounding lost Utopian civilizations and cities. Their influence can be felt in the social commentary of authors like Thomas More. Some of them even led to conquest and colonization (think Spanish Conquistadors). To mention a few examples; the submerged city of Atlantis, personifying Plato’s ideal republic; the mystic island of Avalon, where Excalibur was forged for King Arthur; the hidden city of El Dorado, full of gold and precious treasure and the ancient Thule, an Aryan island located far north and bathed in perpetual daylight.

My favorite one however, is that of Shambhala, a mythical Tibetan kingdom, said to be located either in the Himalayas or in the Altai mountains. Kalachakra Tantra, a Buddhist text, prophesies that Shambhala will be ruled by Maitreya, a future Buddha or enlightened being. Interestingly, there is a similar belief in Hinduism. Vishnu Purana mentions that, when all is lost the great god Kalki shall emerge from Shambhala to vanquish evil and restore order to the world.

Shambhalan folklore probably predates both religions. The story goes like this. King Manjusrikirthi of Shambhala expelled sun worshipers from his kingdom for not embracing Buddhism as their religion. When he realized his folly, they were invited back. Some of them chose to go back, but some wise men and women went on to establish the magical realm of Shambhala, another kingdom, hidden from all. Legends say that it can only be found by the pure of heart. The people of Shambhala, know no suffering. They enjoy constant youth and long lives. The law is just. The land is rich in its abundance and the air is pure. Men have no need for privacy as they have nothing to hide. Their spiritual wells are deep and their understanding of the universe perfect. Their science is so advanced that to lesser beings it seems magical. On the whole, it is the domain of happily ever afters.

Thrill of exploration and spiritual promise of Shambhala have fueled many expeditions to discover its location, including more sinister ones engineered by Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess. The Nazis sought to retrieve the wisdom of Shambhala and its closely related underground neighbor, Agartha (said to be inhabited by demons) and use it for their usual world destroying purposes. No surprises there. As far as we know, none of these explorations yielded any concrete results. Authors like Victoria Le Page, argue that Shambhala exists on another plane of reality, while those like Edwin Bernbaum, explore its symbolic meaning. James Hilton, describes a Shambhala inspired fictional place called Shangri-La in his novel, Lost Horizon. Even Fullmetal Alchemist, the best anime ever (If you disagree, we can argue all day), has a story arc devoted to Shambhala.

Our collective history is a saga of war, carnage and inexplicable cruelty. In such a world it makes sense to believe in a promised land full of wise men and women who have overcome materialism.Even if these lost cities have no basis in fact, they are appealing and they fuel our imagination. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, is a spectacular piece of fiction and illustrates my point splendidly. I remember losing myself in tales of adventure and discovery as a child. Palpitations, goosebumps and shivers down your spine. What could possibly be better than that?


Undistinguished Heroics

I’ve always loved comic books and superheroes. There is a case to be made for them and this post could have been about that. However, they never inspired me. What is the point in admiring fictional heroes, when there are so many that live amidst us. They make real contributions, that change our lives one little discovery at a time.

Scientists who envision possibilities and make these discoveries, get the credit and they deserve every bit of it. However, there are a large number of people working behind the scenes to make them possible; from the technicians and grad students who slave away in the laboratory to the staff that maintains these facilities. We don’t know them, we don’t see them, but they are here and they are real. They are heroes and this post is dedicated to all of them.

Johns Hopkins has been at the frontier of medical research for the past 100 years. It is home to my favorite hero, Dr. Vivien Thomas, a technician turned surgery instructor. I would like to thank every single body that has ever worked there, for inspiring me and for continuing to do so.


Fiercely Viking


My love for vikings comes from three principal sources. How to train your dragon, a lovely animated feature set in a fictional viking village named Berk. Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, a fun filled adventure novel and a great window into fascinating Norse mythology. Trashy viking romances, full of titillation and a large vocabulary of penis related words.

I figured correctly, that I was being exposed to highly romanticized versions of a historical culture. Struck by fierce curiosity, I dug around on the internet (think Wikipedia, source of sweet and at times inaccurate wonder). They say, “Do not meet your heroes”. I disagree. Real people are much more interesting.

For the uninitiated reader, vikings were a Scandinavian seafaring people known for their numerous, appropriately carnage filled raids into the rest of Europe from 8th to 11th century, before being assimilated unwillingly by organized religion and technological superiority. They were expert ship builders and traded with most of the known world, mostly exporting high quality wool and precious amber and importing everything else.

The viking women, on almost equal footing with men, were no damsels in distress. They could inherit property, divorce husbands, remarry, cohabit and have legitimate children outside the bond of marriage. However, their husbands were chosen by the clan. They could practice medicine, exercise religious authority as priestesses and oracles and even serve as merchants. That might not seem like much to the liberated masses, but it is as good as it got in the 10th century.

I was surprised to learn of the viking social structure. The society was divided along socioeconomic lines into three classes. Thralls were slaves, either captured in battle or born to slaves.  Karls were peasants who owned farm land and cattle. Jarls were the nobility. Thralls were owned by the other two classes and the usual mistreatment ensued. Hard household chores, laborious construction and death by sacrifice once their Jarl was en route to Valhalla or Folkvangr, depending upon the type of dispatch. None of my highly credible (ahem) ‘sources’ ever mentioned this. I suppose they were too busy building up the fierce, ax wielding, battle hardened, yet kind and honorable protagonist.

It is not up to us to rain judgement down upon a civilization we do not understand. However, we do know human nature. I’m no expert, yet it is hard to miss similar trends and underlying attitudes in various civilizations that evolved independently. Untouchables of India, pyramid builders of Egypt, serfs of Sparta, gladiators and miners of Rome, African plantation workers in the Americas; all slaves in one way or another, deprived of free will, subject to the whims of their overlords, objectified and at times traded, ignorant of possibility and unprotected by religious texts of the time.

History is rife with grief of the oppressed. A grief that resonates through time and remains relevant to this day. It is relevant, because it is a caution against complacency and insensitivity to violations of human dignity outside our home turf. It is a reminder, to be vigilant and to inculcate a deep sense of compassion and civic duty. We are the most fortunate homo sapiens in 200,000 years, give or take a 100,000. My friends, we must fiercely guard our freedom and liberty for ourselves and for the generations to be.


Of Culture in Vice


Murder, rape and various forms of thievery fall squarely under the category of evil and few have ever disagreed with that. However, when it comes to our ordinary lives vice is a grey area and its definition is subject to prevailing socioeconomic conditions.

It is a mistake to think we are guided by an inborn sense of morality. Most of our behavior is conditioned by the cultural norms of the day.We have traditionally characterized so many things as wicked and immoral. In some cultures it is being sensual or openly expressing sexuality. In some it is smoking weed or going to a bar. Getting caught watching pornography is universally frowned upon (emphasis on getting caught). I’m sure most religious works have exhaustive lists of various acts that would up your sin tally and I’m sure there were reasons behind those inclusions, some still relevant and some not. Homosexuality was until recently thought to be a grave sin. We can no longer justify that line of thought. It is now rightly considered to be an innate part of someone’s identity.

We are human, we overcome instinct and strive toward perfection. While on that journey, it is important to acknowledge that we are flawed and to be without vice is not a natural state. There is a saying where I’m from, “Any thing in excess is a vice”. Having acquired quite a few on my way to adulthood and then having rid myself of some, I must say that I agree with that. Let me give a mild example. As a child I loved Coca Cola, by the time I got to college it was a full blown addiction. I was chugging a liter per day. I decided to call it a vice and quit once it started taking a toll on my health and am better off for it. However, for most people coke is just a free addition to  combo meals.

I think foresight is key to defining and overcoming vice. In college, uncontrolled alcohol consumption might seem fun, but if it turns into alcoholism it will seriously affect your personal and professional life. Behavioral patterns that impair functionality and quality of life need to be identified, analyzed and modified by an individual through self examination, constructive criticism and fierce discipline. This requires much reflection and familiarity with your own strengths and weaknesses.Defining and overcoming vice is a personal quest, to be tailored to your needs.If we as a society manage to raise individuals capable of honest introspection, deep compassion and considerate action; heaven and hell would be rendered irrelevant.

via Daily Prompt: Vice


Priorities & Trade Offs


I had the good fortune of learning from  wonderful teachers and professors. They were all experts in their chosen fields and their dedication is inspiring. The very thought of emulating them is to me, tempting and terrifying at the same time. I’m assaulted by self doubt. Is it possible to devote myself to my profession above all else? Is absolute devotion necessary to advance the field? Is it worth it? When I asked my nanotechnology professor he said ‘Yes’. Not even a single moment of hesitation. Then again, he is divorced.

Having given some thought to it in the past, I have come to believe that for most ordinary people like myself, raising a family and gaining expertise in a field of study are two separate, full time jobs. Hence it is important to list out our priorities before hand. If profession comes out on top, then perhaps its a good idea to hold off on family for awhile. At least, till we can find a partner who has complementing priorities. It is also important to honestly reevaluate these priorities when in doubt.

I personally agree with my professor. However, at the end of the  day, we should choose what makes us happiest even if there is a trade off involved. We need not be super heroes juggling a million things at once.  Judgement from well meaning family members, friends and colleagues be damned.


Hard Choices


In the current partisan climate it is necessary to pre-defend our opinions, lest they be attacked. So, here are my credentials – a first time voter and second generation immigrant, trying to make sense of the sea of news and misinformation out there, to make an informed choice. Just so you guys know, being neither a writer nor an avid political enthusiast, I am not qualified to write this piece. I just feel the need to, and thanks to this blog I can scratch this itch.

I started with Donald Trump as I wanted to keep an open mind and give him a fair shake. At first, the Trump narrative was compelling. He seemed to be in touch with concerns of the working class and hell bent upon bringing our elusive greatness back. However, his narrow and exclusionist views are repulsive and irrelevant to our current predicament. We are constantly on the hunt for ‘the other’ that is just too different to assimilate or understand and he has succeeded greatly at giving it a face or faces. After all, it is easier to attribute our troubles to this other entity instead of examining our own deficiencies and working together to overcome them. Besides, he has failed to articulate any of his policy positions clearly. Bombast and bravado are entertaining traits, but I think they will serve us poorly in the Oval office.

I had been putting off Hillary Clinton, because there is so much history there. I no longer have that luxury. The Clintons are fascinating and there are any number of articles about their personal and professional lives. However, it is very hard to discern much about Mrs. Clinton. She seems to inspire rather extreme reactions in the media, except for a few pieces like a CNN interview with Carl Bernstein. I’m distrustful of extremes and absolutes. The truth usually lies somewhere at the center.

I admit to being conflicted. Her accomplishments make her in President Obama’s words “the most qualified candidate ever”, yet her character has been under siege since the 70s. Some of the earlier criticisms like ‘Why won’t she change her last name to Clinton?’ seem silly now and the more recent ones about dishonesty, not so much. I am in no position to judge and the only thing to do is to rely on is my own impressions.

Hillary comes across as a very intelligent, capable and result oriented woman committed to the greater good, even if it takes questionable means and a lot of secret maneuvering to get there. Perhaps that is what it takes to prevail in the political arena and perhaps that makes me a cynic. I do not know. Twice, my fellow Americans elected President Obama, who is pure as untrodden snow compared to Hillary and twice, he failed to see many a legislation that was dear to us materialize.

Hillary breaths policy and eats scandal for breakfast. It is time to elect someone who has extensive experience and knows the system like the back of her hand. Besides, men were given forty four shots at this job, why not give women one. During these troubling times, we need wiser heads to prevail.

Note to self: Seek forgiveness from the gods of writing for this piece and keep using lest till it feels right.

Note to dissidents: Keep an open mind.