It’s a Wonderful Story, It Brought Tears to My Eyes. Thanks for Letting Us See It But Try It Elsewhere

Something_the_Lord_MadeBy Jack Limpert, a site that showcases the best in feature writing, this week highlighted “Like Something the Lord Made,” a Washingtonian story published 25 years ago that went on to win a National Magazine Award and inspired an Emmy-winning HBO movie.

The story, by Katie McCabe, was about Vivien Thomas, a young African-American man who wanted to go to college but couldn’t. Here’s how the story began:

Say his name, and the busiest heart surgeon in the world will stop and talk for an hour. Of course they have time, they say, these men who count times in seconds, who race against the clock. This is about Vivien Thomas. For Vivien they’ll make time.

Dr. Denton Cooley has just come out of surgery, and he has 47 minutes between operations. “No, you don’t need an appointment,” his secretary is saying. “Dr. Cooley’s right here. He wants to talk to you now.”

Cooley suddenly is on the line from his Texas Heart Institute in Houston. In a slow Texas drawl he says he just loves being bothered about Vivien. And then, in 47 minutes—just about the time he takes to do a triple bypass—he tells you about the man who taught him that kind of speed.

No, Vivien Thomas wasn’t a doctor, says Cooley. He wasn’t even a college graduate. He was just so smart, and so skilled, and so much his own man, that it didn’t matter.
“Like Something the Lord Made” was a story that almost didn’t get published. The writer, Katie McCabe, lived in Washington. She called one day to say she had written a story about a man named Vivien Thomas, who she said had been famous at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for his surgical skills despite not being a doctor. I asked Katie if the story had a Washington connection. No, but Baltimore is only 30 miles away. We talked about the story and I asked if we could take good pictures of Thomas. Well, no, he died five years ago.

She sent us the story—25 years ago stories arrived on paper in big brown envelopes and this one was 21,000 words.

I read it and at the end had tears in my eyes. But it wasn’t Washington and we were a city magazine that focused relentlessly on our home turf. The subject of the story was dead. And it was long. A 21,000 word story translated to about 45 columns of magazine type. With good pictures—if there were any—it would run at least 20 pages in the magazine.

I told Katie it was a wonderful story but not for us. I suggested she try the national magazines or the city magazine in Baltimore.

A year later, she called to say she’d tried the New Yorker, the Atlantic, American Heritage, Reader’s Digest, and a half-dozen other magazines and they’d all turned her down. One said they’d consider the story if she cut it to 4,000 words.

Katie made another good pitch for the story and I remembered the tears so we looked at it again. Ken DeCell and Bill O’Sullivan, two senior editors, cut it to about 12,000 words, we found some pictures, and published it in August 1989.
In 1990 the story won the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing, and at the April ceremony in New York I made no friends by mentioning in the award acceptance the names of some of the magazines that had turned it down. I was trying to make the case to fellow editors that if you read a story that brings tears to your eyes, publish it no matter what.

That wasn’t the end of the story. Fifteen years later HBO made a movie of “Like Something the Lord Made.” It starred Mos Def as Vivien Thomas and Alan Rickman as the surgeon who worked with Thomas. Here’s how the film, titled “Something the Lord Made,” is described:

The film traces the two men’s work when they move in 1941 from Vanderbilt to Johns Hopkins, an institution where the only black employees are janitors and where Thomas must enter by the back door. Together, they attack the congenital heart defect of Tetralogy of Fallot, also known as Blue Baby Syndrome, and in so doing they open the field of heart surgery.

The film version of “Like Something the Lord Made” has been seen by 2.6 million viewers, making it number one in viewership among films made by HBO.

Pretty good for a story that Katie almost had given up on.

And a reminder to editors: If you finish a story with tears in your eyes, publish it.


  1. Really nice piece, Jack, I remember it well.

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