The speed at which technological advances are happening causes us to take them for granted.
We act like we have always had access to the internet, a smart phone at our fingertips and advanced, cutting-edge health care processes and equipment.
Rarely do we stop and look back at where these advances come from or how they were developed. This is especially true in health care.
This is what veteran investigative journalist Charles “Chip” Jones attempts to do in his new book, The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South.
Jones takes his readers back to a time when the international scientific community was focused on reaching the moon and being the first to successfully transplant a human heart.
The Organ Thieves is not just a book about the history of cardiac transplant, it is an exploration of the lack of thoughtful moral reflection that led to a lawsuit over the inappropriate recovery and subsequent transplantation of a man’s heart.
In 1968, Bruce Tucker, an African American factory worker, had just gotten off work at the egg processing plant in Richmond, Virginia. While sharing wine with his coworkers on the top of a wall, he fell and suffered a devastating head injury.
Tucker was rushed by emergency services to the Medical College of Virginia, where he was evaluated, placed on a ventilator and received a craniotomy.
Unfortunately, a few days later a neurologist found that he had a flat electroencephalogram. By today’s standards, he would have been declared brain dead.
Many would assume that Tucker was fortunate in that he was taken to Medical College of Virginia, which was a rising star in the medical community.
Medical College of Virginia had all the usual medical specialties, a world-class neurology department, a growing renal transplant program and what would soon be the school’s first cardiac transplant. The school worked with pioneering transplant surgeons like Dick Lower, David Hum and Norman Shuumway.
Like other emerging transplant programs in the U.S., Medical College of Virginia needed to recover solid human organs for experimentation and possible transplants.
During the 1960s, Virginia law required next of kin’s consent for organs to be removed and used for research or experimental procedures. In the case of an unclaimed body, the medical examiner could authorize the removal of organs.
In the case of Tucker, the deputy medical examiner released his body for research after he was declared unclaimed. Subsequently, his heart was recovered and successfully transplanted into a white businessman.
During this time, Bruce Tucker’s brother, William Tucker, had been trying to locate his brother for several days, calling the hospital multiple times.
Upon arriving at the hospital, William was informed of his brother’s death, but he would not discover the removal of his brother’s heart until his brother’s body arrived at the funeral home.
No one explained to William why the hospital had not contacted him to inform him about his brother’s condition. In sorting through the personal effects that were on Bruce’s body at the time of the accident, William found his own business card.
If the hospital had William’s business card, why was he not called? Why was more effort not made to find Bruce’s family?
Bruce Tucker’s family attempted multiple times to get answers from Medical College of Virginia to no avail. Therefore, they retained Doug Wilder, an African American attorney, and began a legal journey looking for answers and restitution.
They asked questions that no one at Medical College of Virginia wanted to answer, and their cause forced the nation to address issues of brain death, transplantation and race.
The Organ Thieves is not a story of gratuitous racism. It is not filled with in-your-face violence and oppression of Black Americans.
The expression of racism detailed in the book is more passive, which makes it more insidious in many ways. It reveals the truths we choose not to see.
Jones tells a story that reflects two disturbing trends that plague us even today.
The first is the current state of medical insensitivity to patients and the dead in favor of medical advancement.
Bruce Tucker was not treated like a person. He was the resources for an experimental procedure. No person living or dead should ever be viewed or treated as an object.
Second, Tucker was overlooked by a medical establishment that was charged with his care.
He was assumed to be an unclaimed person, despite evidence to the contrary among his personal effects. Would he have been treated with this level of disrespect if he had been a successful white businessman or a member of the elite?
The Organ Thieves is a compelling story that asks us to reevaluate how we develop medical technologies and forces us to wrestle with our innate biases related to race, class and creed.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.