Earlier this month, I attended the 2022-23 VCU Common Book lecture that featured author Chip Jones and his book, “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South.” I hope you have taken the opportunity to read the book. It tells of what happened to Bruce Tucker, a Black man who was brought to the Medical College of Virginia Hospital in 1968 to be treated for a traumatic brain injury but later had his heart removed and transplanted into a white man without his or his family’s consent. While this event has been communicated as an important medical advance in early transplant surgery, it demonstrates yet another example of the history of racism in health care.
Although we have changed names, the Medical College of Virginia Hospital became VCU Medical Center. What happened to Mr. Tucker is part of our legacy and tragic past. It is not the only part. In 1994, we learned that the bodies of free and enslaved Blacks were robbed from their graves, used for medical experimentation and student dissection, and discarded in a well where the Kontos Medical Sciences Building now stands. The discovery of the remains during the building of Kontos was mishandled, further dehumanizing these individuals and their lives. These ancestral remains were sent to the Smithsonian for further study and returned to Richmond in 2021 to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources for reburial and memorialization.
This fall, to acknowledge our history, the VCU Board of Visitors and the VCU Health System Board of Directors issued a resolution that apologizes for the treatment of Bruce Tucker and the individuals whose remains were discovered in the East Marshall Street Well. The resolution also conveyed our regret for the “historic inequity and systemic marginalization of individuals as they do not reflect the society VCU works to advance - one in which people of diverse backgrounds and experiences are given the dignity and respect their humanity deserves.”
In addition, the VCU Office of Health Equity has been hosting an ongoing series focused on racial equity that explores VCU’s challenging racial history, including the events recounted in “The Organ Thieves.” VCU Health has created additional resources on the subject of health equity. These resources, including an epilogue to the Common Book and a health equity video series, are available on the Common Book’s resource pages.
As a community, we must acknowledge our past to help us eradicate present health inequities. All patients are deserving of the same opportunities to achieve their optimal health outcomes and to have their treatment be an affirming experience in our healthcare system. As clinicians, we are compelled to model this behavior for our learners. I hope we will all take time to understand our story and reflect on how we do better than previous generations of physicians and health care providers.