OPINION: Unsettled History It’s time for VCU Health and the university to provide restorative justice regarding the story of its first heart transplant. (from STYLE WEEKLY, January 27, 2021)
BY CHIP JONES
There’s no way to put a price on the beating heart taken from a Black laborer in 1968 by white surgeons seeking professional fame and fortune.
But it is possible for the state of Virginia to say his name – Bruce Tucker – and to honor his major contribution to medical history. While they’re at it, officials at Virginia Commonwealth University, where this ghoulish operation was long revered, should publicly apologize to Tucker’s descendants who still live in the area.
Even as today’s doctors at VCU Health reportedly are trying to ease fears of the COVID-19 vaccine among Black Richmonders, they’d do well to treat this festering sore of history, one that adds to the litany of past national disgraces such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the secret harvesting of Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cells.
Closer to home, the death of Bruce Tucker provides a modern corollary to the Medical College of Virginia’s dark, dystopian origin story. As I learned from the university’s experts and its archives, the medical school’s founders paid grave robbers to pillage nearby cemeteries with the help of ambitious young medical school residents through much of the 19th century. These unspeakable practices – stealing human remains to supply cadavers for dissection – continued until the dawn of the 20th century.
Some of these remains were exposed in 1994 when construction workers dug up an abandoned well. After VCU’s leadership ordered this archeological site to be covered over, an untold number of these human artifacts were left behind. Today, experts say, they’re under the front plaza of the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building at 1217 E. Marshall St.
After last summer’s release of my book, “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South,” Edward L. Ayers, the noted historian and former president of the University of Richmond, said the book “speaks directly to the dilemmas of the twenty-first century.” A Washington Post reviewer agreed, saying that while “the abuses it records are decades old … the gruesome disregard for Black lives makes it an urgently modern warning.”
Other scholars and reviewers from Dublin to Dallas to New York expressed similar views. But to date, this warning hasn’t been fully heeded at the scene of the Tucker tragedy -- VCU Health.
In case his story is new to you, here’s a snapshot:
On a Friday afternoon after work on May 24, 1968, Bruce Tucker was passing a bottle and talking with friends on Church Hill. Around 3 p.m., he tumbled off a wall, hitting his head. He was rushed down to the Medical College of Virginia.
Despite suffering a severe head injury, Tucker’s heart remained strong – a fact duly noted by surgeons. By the next morning, the ailing Black man was identified as a potential heart donor even though he’d never asked to be one.
Within hours, MCV’s top transplant surgeons persuaded a junior medical examiner to let them cut out Tucker’s heart – despite the fact that they’d failed to locate anyone from his family to give them permission.
As the minutes ticked by, the surgeons – eager to execute their first heart transplant – and the medical examiner ignored Virginia’s Unclaimed Bodies Act. This law provided a 24-hour waiting period from the time a person was declared dead to when the body could be used for research.
Though they argued that Tucker’s brain had ceased functioning, that was just their opinion. For you see, in 1968 Virginia had no legal provisions for doctors to declare anyone “brain dead.”
But the headlines said otherwise. “Heart Transplant Operation Performed Here by MCV,” trumpeted the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Sunday, May 26, 1968.
The same triumphant message was repeated until recently whenever MCV touted its well-respected organ transplant programs.
It wasn’t until last summer, when word of my pending book got out, that the MCV Foundation attached an online editor’s note expressing “regret” over what it called “the controversy surrounding the lack of consent from Bruce Tucker’s next of kin before his heart was used in the first heart transplant performed at MCV.” The foundation also vowed “to listen and accept criticism and to learn from our past.”
For Bruce Tucker and his surviving family members, it’s time for VCU Health and the university to provide restorative justice. First, university President Michael Rao – who’s led commendable efforts to remove Confederate-era names from buildings and plaques on campus – should take a shovel and dig up a plaque at the entrance of West Hospital at 1200 E. Broad St. that proudly proclaims, “Birthplace of Cardiac Transplantation” Why? Because there’s no mention of the Black man who died to make this birthplace happen!
Next, rename the heart transplant program after Bruce Tucker and award scholarships in his name to students from Dinwiddie County, where Tucker’s descendants still live.
Finally, some have suggested financial reparations are in order since not a penny was awarded to the Tuckers by an all-white jury in 1972.
VCU’s Board of Visitors would do well to study a 2007 resolution passed by unanimous vote of Virginia’s General Assembly. This marked the first apology for the state’s role in promoting the slave trade since English settlers arrived in Jamestown in 1607.
By taking such relatively small steps, the taxpayer-supported health system in Virginia’s capital can go beyond paying mere lip service and actually demonstrate that it’s learning from past mistakes.
As President Joe Biden proclaimed in his inaugural address, “Don’t tell me things can’t change.”
Chip Jones is author of “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or his website, chipjonesbooks.com.
Chip Jones is an award-winning author, journalist and former communications director of the Richmond Academy of Medicine. The Organ Thieves is his fourth book.