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The Organ Thieves: A Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in Virginia

Jay Paul

As the nation prepares to start inoculating Americans for COVID-19, public health experts worry that many people distrust the vaccine. 

The problem is especially serious among African-Americans.  During slavery and the Jim Crow era, Blacks were subjected to medical experiments without their consent, and after death their bodies were stolen from graves for use in medical schools in Richmond and Charlottesville. 

A new book details those abuses and one modern-day nightmare at the Medical College of Virginia.

The Organ Thieves tells the story of  an African-American man who – without the consent of his family – became the first heart donor in Virginia. Professional narrator JD Jackson reads from the book.

“In late May, 1968, Doug Wilder was in his law office on a tree-lined street in Richmond, Virginia.  He was winding down from a long day of work when the phone rang.  “They took my brother’s heart!” the man on the other end of the line exclaimed in horror. As one of the best-known African-American trial lawyers practicing in the state capital, Wilder was accustomed to taking random phone calls day or night.  Accusations of rape, robbery and murder were not uncommon,  but taking a man’s heart from his own body?  Wilder had never heard of such a thing.”

Author Chip Jones, a Pulitzer-nominated journalist, goes on to explain how William Tucker learned of his brother’s fate.

“It all started when his brother Bruce went missing after work on Friday.  It took a series of frantic phone calls to finally locate him at the Medical College of Virginia – MCV – on Saturday night.  Then some bureaucrats hemmed and hawed before finally delivering the shocking bad news.  His brother, who had been rushed to the hospital with a head injury less than a day before, had died only a few hours earlier on an operating table.  William was given Bruce’s final possessions – among them his driver’s license and a business card – his business card William realized.  It was for his shoe repair shop, only a few blocks from the hospital.  Why hadn’t anyone called him sooner?”

Credit Simon & Schuster
As the Black Lives Matter Movement evolves, there is strong interest in The Organ Thieves.

In the search for answers to that question and many others, Chip Jones learned that surgeon Christian Barnard had actually trained at MCV before returning to his own hospital in South African to perform the world’s first heart transplant.  He got the glory, and Jones says doctors in Richmond may have rushed to catch up.

“The head of the surgery department felt very wronged by the fact that their research and their techniques had been taken back to South Africa and that MCV had sort of been left out of the heart transplant game,” he explains.

The medical college, now known as VCU Health, has quietly expressed regret over the controversy surrounding the lack of consent from Bruce Trucker’s family before his heart was donated to an ailing white businessman who died a few days later.  In a university magazine, VCU says the story “underscores the need to listen to and accept criticism and to learn from our past as we work to honor the dignity of all whom we serve.”

But Chip Jones wonders if that's enough -- especially in light of another discovery.

"In 1994, a huge construction project  on the campus ground to a halt when construction workers were horrified to see human arms sticking out of the mud," he recalls.  "Police called the university archaeology department, and they began to find bodies that were in a nearby well  that had been dumped some time in the past."

The remains were likely those of slaves or poor black residents of Richmond whose bodies were stolen from graves so medical students could dissect and study them.  With the help of Doug Wilder, who would go on to become Virginia’s first Black governor, the Tucker family sued the university and lost, but Jones says some good did come out of that case.

“Within six months of that trial,  State Senator Douglas Wilder worked with some of the surgeons actually  to write a new law that allowed for brain death as a concept of death, and it was only the second such law passed in the United States.”

The Organ Thieves has won considerable attention from news organizations nationwide as America grapples with questions of systemic racism.

" I love a quote from Richard Rohr, the theologian.  You cannot heal what you do not acknowledge.  I think there is really still a lot of unacknowledged wounds that need to be healed."

The book includes a teaching guide, and Jones hopes it can be used in high schools to explore issues of race and healing with the next generation.

Audio excerpts courtesy of Simon & Schuster Audio from Organ Thieves by Chip Jones, read by JD Jackson. Copyright © 2020 by Chip Jones. Use with permission from Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief