An Interview with Patricia Meisol

  • By Laura Fisher Kaiser
  • May 7, 2024

The investigative reporter unpacks the story of an enigmatic, trailblazing surgeon.

An Interview with Patricia Meisol

Five-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Patricia Meisol has “always looked for stories of women who work in creative ways to free themselves and others, parallel stories to the ones we know well of men who bring about institutional and cultural change.” To her amazement, she found such a heroine in her own back yard of Baltimore — a groundbreaking pediatric cardiac surgeon named Helen Brooke Taussig.

Like most people, Meisol had no idea that Taussig helped developed a procedure to fix heart defects in “blue babies” in the 1940s before becoming a global activist who led the charge to ban thalidomide in the U.S. In her debut biography, A Heart Afire: Helen Brooke Taussig’s Battle Against Heart Defects, Unsafe Drugs, and Injustice in Medicine, Meisol reveals how Taussig’s personal struggles forged the tenacity and empathy that made her a formidable force for health justice.

Why do you think this is the first book about Taussig?

That’s a great question. She was controversial in her time. And there aren’t many biographies of women doctors. Medical historians tend to write about groups of doctors or scientists. I wanted to tell people about this great lady who happened to be in medicine and succeeded beyond her obstacles.

What kinds of obstacles?

For one thing, while she was in medical school, she had whooping cough (diphtheria), which made her partially deaf. But she didn’t quit. It is astonishing that she became not just a heart doctor but also a master diagnostician. She chose the hardest possible specialty for someone who was deaf.

How did she compensate if she couldn’t hear the subtle sounds of a heart?

She wasn’t totally deaf, although it was progressive, but she used her hands as a diagnostic tool. She would place her sensitive fingers on a child’s chest to detect sounds produced by the anatomy of their heart. She also amplified sound, taking advantage of every technology as it came out. A lot of people didn’t realize that she was deaf because she read lips and didn’t miss much.

One of many astonishing facts I learned from your book was that public schools in the early 20th century taught lip-reading because of the prevalence of deafness caused by disease. But even before that, Helen overcame another obstacle — undiagnosed dyslexia. I love when her father kindly explains that the reason she has a hard time spelling is because she is logical and spelling is not.

It’s lovely. He was a great father. He really encouraged her and taught her how to persevere and solve puzzles. She applied those methods to diagnosing children. She was always thinking three steps ahead because she had learned to look ahead to the end of the sentence and work backwards.

Another major obstacle was misogyny in a male-dominated profession. She constantly had to massage the ego of her mentor, Alfred Blalock, who seemed threatened by her quiet confidence, and he tried to take all the credit for their work together.

She really succeeded against the odds at a time when the culture was very severe for women. She was an outsider. She wasn’t playing golf with these guys. As a result, she doesn’t always know the rules, so she comes up with her own.

She never married and was very private. How were you able to capture her essence?

A number of people put me in touch with her former students and doctors she trained. I interviewed more than a dozen of them, plus local Baltimore folks who had been in her home, and even former patients or families of patients. I happened to find a jeweler in New York state who put me in touch with Helen’s first patient’s family in California. Very lucky. I spent many hours and days in the National Institutes of Health’s Library of Medicine in Bethesda. Also, her voice really comes through in her patient records in a way that you would never find today. She talks about her patients and their medical issues at length, what she learned from other patients, what mistakes she made, what her hopes are.

Was her willingness to admit mistakes part of what made you admire her?

Absolutely. Like one time, she’s in her garden and realizes that she misdiagnosed a patient five years earlier. She goes to her office and says, “Please find the patient!” They find him, and he’s worse and needs a different operation. I love that about her.

What did you learn that surprised you?

Well, for one thing, how in medical school, Helen was always dissecting beef hearts in her boardinghouse bathtub.

The smell must have been horrendous!

Right? It just showed how intense and purposeful she was. And how she got the confidence to tell Blalock in the operating room that he needed to redo the whole procedure.

And the chutzpah to sound the alarm about the connection between birth defects and the sleeping pill thalidomide.

She made a huge stink and galvanized public opinion, which drove the medical establishment crazy. People were like, “What are you doing? You’re embarrassing us.” Even at Hopkins, they were just hiding. She was so out there. She was the only one who had the evidence in the United States because she had gone to Germany to investigate what was happening. She was the only one who had held these babies in her arms. She’d heard the mothers screaming. She’d been at the front line of caring for patients. She understood their suffering.

You talk about a famous — or infamous — portrait of Taussig by Jamie Wyeth, which serves as a metaphor for how she was misunderstood. When I googled it, I was struck by the intensity and fierceness he captured, yet people seemed to want to remember her as a beatific grandmother-type. How did you feel about Wyeth’s interpretation?

I had a Xerox of it taped to my desk from the beginning! I collected all kinds of images of Helen, although I wasn’t able to include very many in the book because of costs and rights. But they helped me understand different aspects of her personality. People are prisms. She was tenacious and empathetic but also tough. In some photos, she looks so innocent, but don’t be fooled.

Laura Fisher Kaiser is a journalist, editor, and author based in Washington, DC. She is working on a group biography about a family haunted by generational suicide. 

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