Film co-star Alan Rickman with McCabe on the set of Something the Lord Made
Katie McCabe first heard Vivien Thomas's story on November 26, 1985 -- the day he died.
"Turn off your tape recorder and I'll tell you a real story," said surgeon Judson Randolph. They had just finished a long interview about pediatric surgery, when a memory sent Dr. Randolph in a new direction.
There was a man he'd heard of when he'd trained at Vanderbilt -- an African American man named Vivien Thomas -- who with no education past high school had pioneered the world's first Blue Baby operation with the famed Dr. Alfred Blalock. In the halls of a rigidly segregated Johns Hopkins in the early 1940s, they had worked together to invent modern heart surgery. Thomas had gone on to train a whole generation of elite heart surgeons. Every single one of them revered him.
"The guy was an absolute legend," he said.
McCabe couldn't know that on that very day, Vivien Thomas had died in Baltimore. She only found that out a year later, when after completing her earlier project, she phoned Johns Hopkins asking to interview Thomas.
That, it seemed, ended any prospect of pursuing the story. As a colleague said, "You'll never sell a magazine article about a dead man no one's ever heard of." But the sense of wonderment Randolph had conveyed and the sheer improbability of the story propelled McCabe to write it anyway. In the archives of the National Library of Medicine she discovered a highly technical memoir Thomas had written about his work with Blalock. But it was only when she heard his voice captured in a two hour interview done decades earlier at Hopkins, that she glimpsed the human being who inspired such awe in those he taught. She set about interviewing them -- the cadre of men Thomas had trained. She visited them; she watched them operate. And then she sat down and wrote a 21,000 word article that over the course of the next year was rejected by nearly every major magazine in America. Too obscure, the editors said. Too long. Too technical. Too removed from the present for readers to care.
"Too Baltimore for us," said Washingtonian magazine editor Jack Limpert, who published it anyway, because, he said, "It made me cry." When the piece that became "Like Something the Lord Made" appeared in August 1989, it won the National Magazine Award for feature writing. But that wasn't the end of it. It landed in the waiting room of a Washington, D.C. dentist named Irving Sorkin, a medical history buff with a fascination for surgery -- and a Hollywood-based daughter named Arleen. She took hold of the story and refused to let go until she'd put it in the hands of HBO head Chris Albrecht. In May 2004, fifteen years after the publication of the story, HBO brought Something the Lord Made to television screens. On the night it aired, 2.6 million people watched it -- and wondered why they'd never heard of this man who'd shattered taboos, who'd saved hundreds of thousands of babies with heart defects, who'd changed Johns Hopkins, and the world.