VCU issued a public apology regarding the truth behind the unlawful first heart transplant in Virginia on Sept. 16, on VCU News.
A Black factory worker named Bruce Tucker was wrongfully pronounced brain-dead and had his heart transplanted to a white man without consent in 1968 at MCV, according to author Chip Jones.
Rector of the Board of Visitors H. Benson Dendy III said VCU is late in taking the action to apologize, but “the time is never wrong to do what’s right.”
“The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South,” written by Jones, was chosen as the VCU 2022-23 Common Book. The book follows the life of Tucker.
Director of the Common Book Program Felecia Williams previously stated the book was chosen because it dealt with content applicable to all disciplines.
Jones has previously pushed for an apology from VCU Health over the past year and a half.
MCV was able to take Tucker’s heart due to the absence of federal laws and regulations regarding the use of cadavers that protected “a patient like Bruce Tucker,” Jones said.
The doctors who performed the procedure, Dr. David Hume and Dr. Richard Lower, were revered and had the pressure of contributing to medical advancements, according to Jones.
“It’s great in a way, to look up to doctors, but the flip side is they weren’t held accountable and they pretty much could do what they wanted to,” Jones said. “Ego played a lot in this.”
Two significant ethical principles were neglected during the transplant, Jones said. One was the law of a 24-hour waiting period required before someone could receive a heart transplant. Additionally, there was no official law defining brain death in Virginia at the time. The absence of this type of law denied protection for Black individuals, such as Tucker, in the healthcare system, Jones said.
Jones said he spoke with Bruce Tucker’s son, Abraham Tucker, about getting in touch with VCU regarding the apology. Abraham Tucker rejected VCU’s attempts at contacting him because of how traumatic this story was for the Tucker family, according to Jones.
“The issue for me, even now, is I don’t want to retraumatize the Tucker family,” Jones said. “It’s a really tough topic for me, but I thought the least I could do was talk about it and write about it.”
Jones said he was glad he and his book were a part of the discussion about the truth behind Bruce Tucker’s death.
Douglas Wilder, former governor of Virginia, namesake of the university school of government and public affairs and first elected Black governor in the United States, represented Tucker’s family when they sought for justice in court. He recently sued university president Michael Rao over a personnel matter.
“I’m glad to be part of a conversation at least to help folks understand some of the things that happened that should be discussed,” Jones said. “I’m glad it’s being used as a teaching tool.”
The Board of Visitors and Board of Directors authorized a plaque to honor Bruce Tucker, according to VCU News. Individual donors from the School of Medicine commissioned the plaque and it will be permanently displayed at VCU Medical Center.
VCU and VCU Health System Board of Directors also acknowledged and apologized for the individuals’ remains that were discovered in the East Marshall Street Well in 1994.
The remains were tied to illegal grave robbing of African American burial sites in the 19th century. During this time period, medical cadavers were not widely available and faculty members of MCV would steal the bodies for teaching medical practices, according to East Marshall Street Well’s website.
Tal Simmons, VCU forensic science professor, is currently still working on the research analysis with three other graduate students for the East Marshall Street Well Project.
The Family Representative Council encouraged the project through a community process when the remains of the bodies were recovered. The council is representing the descendants of the individuals in order to “support appropriate study, memorialization and reburial with dignity,” according to East Marshall Street Well’s website.
“The research is far away from finishing and will take about another year and a half to complete,” Simmons said. “We developed the right extraction method this past August to minimize damage to the body parts and we’re grounding about fifty grams of bone, which is a small amount, for research.”
No descendants of the individuals have been found yet, as the researchers are still trying to link different parts of the bodies together, according to Simmons. Physical features such as hair and eye color will not be understood until more research is complete.
“I am extremely honored to be involved and I know the students are as well. We are very conscious of the research as we are trying to restore the dignity of the individuals for the sake of the families and the community,” Simmons said.
Amber Mundy, one of the three graduate assistants, is focusing on extracting crania and sequencing the DNAs. When the sequencing is complete, geographic origin, ancestry and phenotype of the individuals will be revealed, according to Simmons and Mundy.
“Part of understanding the geographic origins of the individuals is to give them proper customs of burial,” Mundy said
The individuals were thought to be dated back to the 19th century, however, new findings revealed that some bodies were buried in the 20th century, according to Mundy.
“Graverobbing in African American burial sites was common in the past, but it’s horrifying to know that it happened closer to the present day than we thought,” Mundy said. “The wrong was already wrong. True apology and advocacy is not repeating the mistakes again, and this includes gentrification of Black or people of color neighborhoods.”
This content was originally published here.