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The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks meets Get Out in this “startling...powerful” (Kirkus Reviews) investigation of racial inequality at the core of the heart transplant race.

In 1968, Bruce Tucker, a black man, went into Virginia’s top research hospital with a head injury, only to have his heart taken out of his body and put into the chest of a white businessman. Now, in The Organ Thieves, Pulitzer Prize–nominated journalist Chip Jones exposes the horrifying inequality surrounding Tucker’s death and how he was used as a human guinea pig without his family’s permission or knowledge.

The circumstances surrounding his death reflect the long legacy of mistreating African Americans that began more than a century before with cadaver harvesting and worse. It culminated in efforts to win the heart transplant race in the late 1960s. Featuring years of research and fresh reporting, along with a foreword from social justice activist Ben Jealous, “this powerful book weaves together a medical mystery, a legal drama, and a sweeping history, its characters confronting unprecedented issues of life and death under the shadows of centuries of racial injustice” (Edward L. Ayers, author of The Promise of the New South).

ISBN-13: 9781982107536

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Gallery/Jeter Publishing

Publication Date: 02-15-2022

Pages: 400

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.10(d)

Chip Jones has been reporting for nearly thirty years for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Roanoke Times, Virginia Business magazine, and other publications. As a reporter for The Roanoke Times, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his work on the Pittston coal strike. He is the former communications director of the Richmond Academy of Medicine, which is where he first discovered the heart-stopping story in The Organ Thieves.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Case of the Missing Heart
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.1

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, nor were other desperate pleas from mothers and fathers seeking help for loved ones who’d run afoul of the legal system. Even as halting steps toward progress had begun to bring incremental improvements in schools, housing, and jobs, his home state of Virginia was still moving at a snail’s pace from under the heavy burden of centuries of discrimination.

But taking a man’s heart from his own body? Wilder had never heard of such a thing. “I don’t understand what you’re talking about, not having a heart,” he told the caller, William Tucker. “What do you mean? What happened to it?”

He started taking notes as Tucker described a deeply disturbing series of events that had just unfolded over the weekend. It all started when his brother Bruce went missing after work on Friday. It took a series of frantic phone calls—prompted by an insider’s tip—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’d 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.2

Bruce’s body had been claimed and taken to a funeral home near the family farm. 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?

A day later, still numb from the news of his brother’s death, William began the hour-long drive to the farm. He wanted to personally break the news to his eighty-year-old mother, Emma, and to Bruce’s teenage son, Abraham, who lived with her. First, though, he would check with the local undertaker about the upcoming funeral. William’s best-laid plans were shattered, though, when he learned more shocking details of his brother’s treatment in an operating room at the Medical College of Virginia.

William Tucker’s ordeal started with a hushed call from a friend inside the hospital. “Something’s going on with Bruce,” the friend whispered.

William put down a pair of shoes he was working on. It was early Saturday afternoon. He asked his friend to speak up and explain himself. His friend whispered something about a heart operation involving Bruce. Then the line went dead.

William stared at the phone and laid it back on its cradle. What was that about?

He tried calling the hospital a couple of times but couldn’t get a straight answer. It took him a few hours to close up shop and drive over to MCV. By then it was after 7:00 p.m. When the hospital finally sent out some men to talk to him, he asked them a simple question: “Where is my brother?” William, a polio victim who used crutches, braced himself for the reply.

Bruce was dead, he was told, and “you’ll need to make funeral arrangements.” Nothing was said about an operation or anything about Bruce’s heart.

On Monday morning, William Tucker swung by Jones Funeral Home in Stony Creek, Virginia. Mack Jones, the owner and mortician, apologetically informed William that while preparing the body for burial he noticed something bizarre: Bruce was missing his heart—and his kidneys.3

As William related his tale, Wilder put down his pen. This was too much to write down. After a silence, William asked Wilder if he’d represent him and the family and try to get to the bottom of what happened.

“Yes, I will,” Wilder agreed. Though he tried to sound confident, he also knew there was something about the sound of this case he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It was something that went to the dark heart of the city and state of his birth.

It had been almost ten years since Wilder graduated from Howard University School of Law in Washington, DC, but he still practiced law in the long, lingering shadow of the Jim Crow South. The courtrooms, jailhouses, and white-controlled bar association were all woefully behind the times and observed strict segregation. A black Virginian had no chance of having his or her trial being adjudicated by an African American judge for the simple reason that there weren’t any black judges. Black jurors were also a rarity, since any defense attorney worth his salt would use the law to strike anyone of color from a jury panel.4

William Tucker went on to describe more of the peculiar circumstances surrounding his brother’s demise. Bruce had been working at an egg-processing plant not far from Wilder’s law office. After work that past Friday, he was relaxing with friends and passing a bottle of wine in the shade behind an Esso station. He was sitting on a wall but lost his balance and hit his head, rendering him unconscious. An ambulance was called. Bruce was quickly transported to the nearby MCV, the state’s largest teaching hospital.

That’s how it started. But what happened after Bruce was treated in the emergency room and later by the hospital’s brain-injury specialists? And why would he attract the notice of its heart surgeons? Wasn’t it his head—not his heart—that was injured?

From what Wilder could piece together from William’s first account, something simply didn’t add up. It reminded Wilder of some kind of science fiction movie where doctors experiment on humans in the dead of night. As William’s friend had whispered from inside the hospital, “They’re doing some kind of experimental heart operation.”

But who? Wilder wondered. And why? What happened behind the walls of the big hospital on the hill?

William Tucker sounded distraught, and his first account took some twists and turns that could be hard to follow at times: The frantic phone calls to MCV... How nobody seemed to know even where Bruce had been taken, much less anything about his condition—until someone said he’d been transferred from the main hospital to nearby St. Philip Hospital, a place Wilder knew well. Until recently it had been a segregated hospital solely for African American patients. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had forced all hospitals to end the separation of races in their wards. So why had they sent such a severely injured black patient like Bruce Tucker over to the still-second-rate facility?

The more Wilder heard from William, the more questions he had. Why hadn’t the hospital given William time to get over to see Bruce when he was in such dire shape? Like the cobbler, Wilder ran a one-man shop, where he answered his own phone and even cleaned up the office. He couldn’t just run out whenever an emergency arose. But why wouldn’t William think he could wait a few hours if his brother was in such good hands at MCV, with some of the finest physicians in Virginia?

William finally managed to close his shop and get over to St. Philip sometime between 7:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. That’s when he learned his brother had died more than three hours earlier—at 3:35 p.m. But why? From what? And if Bruce had been so near death, why hadn’t anyone informed him so he could rush over to be by his bedside?

It didn’t add up. One thing was clear to Wilder, though: questions needed to be asked on the family’s behalf—and the sooner the better. Sure, Bruce Tucker was in bad shape when he’d been rushed to MCV. But the injured factory worker had another liability that had nothing to do with his job status or his medical condition: he was a black man with liquor on his breath. Because of that, Wilder knew that Bruce’s odds for fair treatment were about as good as his own chances of ever getting elected governor.

How could a man go into the hospital with a head injury and come out not only dead but also with his vital organs missing? Something about the taking of Bruce’s heart was particularly shocking. Wilder—a chemistry major in college who went on to work in the state medical examiner’s office5—considered himself a rational, progressive-thinking man. But the heart? This still held a sacred place as the symbol of all human emotions. Who had taken it? he wondered. Who had received it—and why?

Wilder was the grandson of slaves. Early in life, he developed a thick skin to deal with the segregated world of the South that still plagued his hometown in 1968. As a result of his hard work, advocacy skills, and refusal to play by the old rules, the thirty-seven-year-old’s legal practice was thriving.

But the call from the distraught brother had stirred up some bad childhood memories. Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s in the former capital of the Confederacy, Wilder heard rumors about what went on behind the fortresslike walls of the teaching hospital. There were whispered warnings from older boys: “You best stay away from MCV, or you might get snatched up by the night doctors!” It was like something from the pen of Edgar Allan Poe, who himself had once carried his own dark thoughts along the cobblestone streets of Richmond.

Between his law practice and earlier work in the Virginia medical examiner’s office, Wilder knew doctors weren’t perfect. Things happened in the course of medical treatments that were kept from prying eyes. But even in his worst nightmares, he never imagined a hospital would condone stealing a man’s heart.6

It was an unseasonably warm day for spring in Richmond, so he switched on a fan by the open window. Kids were happily playing hopscotch on the sidewalk while young couples held hands as they took a stroll to enjoy this otherwise bright, sunny afternoon. Most of his neighbors were African American these days.

Not that long ago, Church Hill had been a mixed neighborhood where whites and blacks lived and worked together. It was named for St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry had famously declared in the run-up to the Revolutionary War, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” As Virginia was forced to open its public schools to black children in the early 1960s, many white families fled to avoid integration. Wilder always thought the white flight was a sad commentary on his community.

Something about William Tucker’s story tugged at Wilder. He didn’t entirely know what he was getting into, but he knew full well that he was in for one hell of a fight. MCV was not only a large medical school, but it also was a powerful one backed by big business and big government alike. As an aspiring politician, Wilder was keenly aware of how things worked around town. He had no doubt that with so much money, power, and influence at stake, MCV—which was funded by the state and was a major source of civic pride—was not a place to trifle with. It simply had too many friends in high places.

But, as he later observed, “I recognized that making a living was one thing, but I also had a role to play in representing those who were in danger of being left outside the system unless I helped them.”7

Wilder hadn’t paid that much attention to the recent news of the heart transplant on the front of the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Heart Transplant Operation Performed Here at MCV.” He recalled only that it was about helping a white businessman and it was a first for Virginia.8

The article had not said anything about the donor’s identity. Now, he quickly surmised, William Tucker was filling in the major gap in the story: his brother Bruce was the unnamed “donor”—the guinea pig the MCV doctors used to jump into the heart transplant race. Doug Wilder was determined to find out why.

Table of Contents

Author's Note vii

Foreword: We Can Do Better Ben Jealous ix

Part 1 Roots

Chapter 1 Case of the Missing Heart 3

Chapter 2 The Resurrectionists 10

Chapter 3 The Anatomy Men 22

Chapter 4 "The Limbo of the Unclaimed" 33

Part 2 The Race

Chapter 5 Breaking the Heart Barrier 49

Chapter 6 Heart on Ice 57

Chapter 7 Restless Genius 67

Chapter 8 The Glass Jar 90

Chapter 9 Foreign Exchange 103

Chapter 10 Finish Line 115

Part 3 Reckoning

Chapter 11 The Fall 139

Chapter 12 His Brothers Heart 147

Chapter 13 The Scream 162

Chapter 14 "Facts and Circumstances" 172

Part 4 Troubles, Trials, and Tribulations

Chapter 15 Rejection 193

Chapter 16 The Making of a Medical Celebrity 203

Chapter 17 The Defender 221

Chapter 18 Relative Death 238

Chapter 19 Time of Trial 248

Chapter 20 Friends in High Places 258

Chapter 21 Shaping a Verdict 277

Chapter 22 The Unresolved Case of Bruce Tucker 297

Chapter 23 Down in the Well 303

Epilogue: The Soul of Medicine 317

Afterword: Unhealed History 327

Acknowledgments 333

Bibliography 337

Notes 339

Index 375