Chip Jones’ book “The Organ Thieves” tells the gruesome story of a Black man named Bruce Tucker who went to the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond in 1968 with a head injury only to later have his heart taken out and transplanted to the chest of a white businessman.
When the book first came out, Jones wrote an opinion piece asking for Virginia Commonwealth University to publicly apologize to Tucker’s family who still live in the area. That public apology has yet to come.
But VCU has chosen Jones’ book “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South” as its Common Book for 2022.
The book will be read by roughly 4,500 students in the first year program as well as be discussed through a series of events by the VCU Health community.
Jones, a former reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, learned about Dr. Richard Lower and Dr. David Hume, legendary figures at the Medical College of Virginia, when he was working at the Richmond Academy of Medicine after leaving the newspaper.
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In 1968, Dr. Lower and an MCV team performed the first human-to-human heart transplant in Virginia.
“I soon noticed something missing in MCV’s early version of the story of its memorable transplant: the identity of the man who had given up the heart transplanted into the body of an ailing Virginia businessman. Who was he and why was his name left out of the earliest accounts of the operation?” Jones wrote on his websiteexplaining the seed of his book.
MCV was under intense pressure to perform a heart transplant. At the time, the first human heart transplant had occurred just a year before by a doctor trained by Dr. Lower and Dr. Home.
When Tucker arrived at MCV, they took his heart without notifying next of kin and put it into the chest of white Orange County businessman Joseph Klett, who died about a week later.
Tucker’s family didn’t know about the transplant until the undertaker who prepped Tucker’s body told them that Tucker’s heart and kidneys had been removed.
Writing the book, Jones said, “was trying to respond in some way to this gross injustice that has been perpetrated.”
“When I learned about this vaunted historical event, the closer I looked at it: it wasn’t so vaunted. My goal was to put Tucker’s story into the public history. I feel like he was voiceless and his voice needed to be heard,” Jones said.
Racism has a long history at MCV. In the 19th century, the medical school’s founders paid grave robbers to pillage African graves to provide cadavers for the young medical school students.
Tucker may have been seen as a “charity patient” when he arrived at the hospital, who probably wouldn’t have been able to pay his bills.
Second-rate care for African Americans in the health industry continues today and played a role in the COVID-19 crisis.
In 2021, Virginia declared racism a public health crisis. However, most recently, Virginia’s new state health commissioner, Dr. Colin Greene, came under fire for his comments denying systemic racism in the health industry and maternal mortality rates.
“This is still very much going on today,” Jones said.
“We cannot write our next chapter without understanding how the university’s complex history affects our patients,” said Dr. Art Kellermann, CEO of VCU Health System, in a release. “VCU and its health system have come a long way, but we will not rest until we achieve health equity for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, income or geography.”
The car that fled was described as a possible 2010 maroon sedan with a dirty appearance.
This is the first VCU Common Book selected by a Richmond author and which takes place in Virginia.
“We’re hoping the book will spark some conversations beyond the classroom,” said Felecia D. Williams, director of the Common Book program based out of VCU’s University College. “It’s a book that will have appeal across different disciplines and different fields.”
From medicine to ethics, social justice to a history lesson, “The Organ Thieves” covers many disciplines and addresses a topic close to home.
“As a student, I think it’s important that ‘The Organ Thieves’ was chosen… because it elucidates racial injustice in medical practices, back in 1968, and now,” VCU student Carley Harrison said. “Racial inequality in medical practices is still affecting millions of people.”
“I never expected this book to become part of the freshman curriculum,” Jones said. “But I think it will give the entering student body some knowledge of the controversies at their own school, the past issues of segregation, as well as systemic racism in the medical profession and in the legal system.”
Jones will deliver a keynote address to VCU students and the public from 6 to 7:30 pm Oct. 12 at the Singleton Center, 922 Park Ave. More information is at commonbook.vcu.edu.