In the 1940s, before the Cardiopulmonary Bypass machine, there was a need for a way to redirect blood flow in patients with defective heart valves. Alfred Blalock along with his African American lab technician, Vivian Thomas, and Helen Taussig, created the Blalock-Taussig Shunt at Johns Hopkins Hospital . The shut was used as a surgical method for “anastomosis, or joining, of the subclavian artery to the pulmonary artery” [See above picture for reference]. The more common, and original, application for the shunt is on patients with Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart defect, one of the causes of “Blue Baby Syndrome” .
This shunt is important in several ways. It proved to the medical world that heart defects could be repaired. It was also of social importance as Vivian Thomas, a major contributor to the project, was left out due to his skin color and the prejudices at the time in 1940s Baltimore. It was not until the 1980s that Thomas received recognition for his work . Finally, and probably most importantly, Alfred Starr, one of the creators of the Starr-Edwards heart valve, studied under Alfred Blalock at Hopkins during this time, which gave him the urge to enter into the burgeoning field of cardiac surgery .
Now the Blalock-Taussig shunt is used as a temporary measure until patients can receive a more permanent repair on their heart such as an artificial heart valve .
The story of Blalock, Thomas and Tetralogy of Fallot is documented in the HBO movie, Something the Lord Made. The trailer below gives away most of the movie:
More information on Tetralogy of Fallot can be found here.
More details of the actual placement of the shunt, including patient care, can be found here.