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Operation that saved Jimmy Kimmel's newborn was developed at Johns Hopkins

Posted at 6:15 PM, May 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-04 06:36:05-04

The surgery that saved Jimmy Kimmel’s newborn was first attempted at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1940’s.

The HBO film, “Something the Lord Made” was based off the true story of how the Blue Baby Operation was developed.

On Monday, a tearful Jimmy Kimmel shared with millions the scare his family experienced with the recent birth of their baby boy.

“He appeared a normal healthy baby until about three hours after he was born,” said Kimmel.

A nurse detected a heart murmur, which is not uncommon with babies, but then she noticed he was turning purple.

“The room started to fill up. More doctors and nurses and equipment started coming in and they determined that he wasn't getting enough oxygen to his blood,” Kimmel said.

Billy Kimmel was diagnosed with a heart disease called tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia. He was taken to Los Angeles Children's Hospital where he underwent open heart surgery.

“[They] went in there with a scalpel and did some kind of magic that I couldn't even begin to explain. He opened up the valve and the operation was a success! It was the longest three hours of my life,” said Kimmel.

Billy Kimmel will need more surgeries in the future but other than that he'll most likely lead a pretty normal life. A life that thousands of babies never had the opportunity to experience until the groundbreaking discovery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1944.

“The first blue baby operation was done by Dr. [Alfred] Blalock after being pushed into doing it (we say) by Dr. [Helen] Taussig, and being taught to do it by his lab technician,” said Dr. Jane Crosson, associate professor of pediatrics and pediatric cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

That lab technician was Vivien Thomas, an African American heart surgery pioneer initially denied recognition because of racial prejudices.

“Vivien Thomas really stood behind Dr. Blalock to do the first surgery and taught him how to do it because he had been doing it on animals,” said Dr. Crosson.

It's a tale so legendary that every cardiologist fellow at Hopkins is encouraged to watch the movie based on the true story.

“It was hugely groundbreaking. It really ushered in the age of congenital heart surgery and ability to save thousands of children who would've died if they hadn't had those kinds of operations,” Dr. Crosson said.

While it was a nurse that detected an abnormality that led to the diagnosis of Jimmy Kimmel's son, here in Maryland, there's a law requiring all newborns get their oxygen levels checked before being discharged from the hospital. It's the first step in screening infants for congenital heart defects.

Congenital heart disease affects eight out of every 1,000 children.