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New book revisits shameful transplant practice of past

Reginald Stuart | 8/20/2020, 6 p.m.
For centuries, medical doctors have been guided by ethical standards, pledging no intentional harm to patients. But lapses or disturbing, ...

For centuries, medical doctors have been guided by ethical standards, pledging no intentional harm to patients. But lapses or disturbing, questionable, on-the-spot decisions and errors in judgment by physicians occur, undermining public confidence in health care providers and prodding the nation’s medical academy to reassess its standards.

“The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South,” a new fact-based book by Richmond author and veteran journalist Chip Jones, revisits the medical ethics issue as the public, politicians and health leaders offer divergent views about combating COVID-19 as thousands of people die weekly from the airborne respiratory disease.

Mr. Jones

Mr. Jones

“In 1968 and even today, this was second-class health care,” Mr. Jones told the Free Press in an interview. He stressed the need for health officials to assure the public about the ethics and safety of the current myriad efforts to halt the coronavirus.

“The Organ Thieves” focuses on the medical care given to Bruce O. Tucker, a 54-year-old African-American who, in May1968, suffered a skull fracture during a fall and was rushed to the noted Medical College of Virginia hospital for treatment.

Mr. Tucker’s tragedy came at a time when the hospital had been working for years to respectfully establish itself among medical research institutions in the field of human organ transplants.

In the era of racial segregation, MCV had a tarnished reputation dating back to its founding before the Civil War for advancing its human anatomy studies by engaging the services of grave robbers and by collecting the cadavers of dead slaves and impoverished white people. Some of the unwanted body parts were disposed of in wells and other sites that have been uncovered during the school’s expansion in recent decades.

More than a century after some of those practices occurred, Mr. Tucker unknowingly played a role in advancing the school toward its goal of becoming a leader in the field of human transplant medicine.

Within 24 hours, surgeons concluded Mr. Tucker could not recover from his serious brain injury and pronounced him “technically dead.” Then, based on that determination and without consent from Mr. Tucker or any close relatives or next of kin, the medical team removed his vital organs — from his heart to his kidneys — for transplant into a white business executive who had been in and out of the hospital with illnesses.

The hospital said Mr. Tucker’s relatives could not be located, according to Mr. Jones’ book. He found records of the hospital trying to find relatives of Mr. Tucker, even enlisting police to help by going to Mr. Tucker’s Richmond apartment where no one knew of him or any contacts. With the life clock ticking, time was running out on transplant doctors to make some decisions.

The patient in urgent need of a transplant being white hastened family concerns after Mr. Tucker’s death about whether his life had been sacrificed too quickly because he was Black, and whether Mr. Tucker had been considered by the hospital as a “charity” patient absent identifiable relatives, a status in society that im- plies a person has no wealth, rank or importance in the community.