On May 25, 1968, surgeons in Richmond, Virginia performed a successful operation heart Transplant, one of the world’s first, on a white businessman. The heart they used was taken from a black patient named Bruce Tucker, who had been rushed to the hospital the day before, unconscious and with a broken skull traumatic brain injury. Less than 24 hours later, he was pronounced brain dead.
Tucker’s still beating heart was then removed without his family’s knowledge or prior permission; Her horrified discovery – by the local funeral director – that Tucker’s heart was missing was a disastrous blow.
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The first human organ transplant, a kidney, took place in 1954, and by the late 1960s “superstar” surgeons vied to be the first to successfully transplant a human heart, Jones told Live Science.
“Scientifically, it was the medical parallel to the space race,” said Jones.
Dr. Richard Lower and Dr. David Hume, surgeons at the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) in Richmond, led this race, but it was South African surgeon Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who performed the first heart transplant on December 1st. 3, 1967. In May 1968, MCV admitted a patient with serious illness to its hospital Coronary disease Who was a promising candidate for a heart transplant. But Lower and Hume had not yet found a viable heart donor.
And since time was running out for their sick patient, they needed one quickly.
The “Charity Patient”
Tucker, a Richmond factory worker who sustained a serious head injury in a fall, was rushed to MCV Hospital on May 24, 1968. Although Tucker’s personal effects included his brother’s business card, officials were unable to find a family member on behalf of the unconscious man. And because the hospital claimed Tucker had no family and alcohol on his breath (he was drinking before his accident), he was profiled as a “charity patient” and listed as a potential heart donor.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Jones.
Tucker was on a ventilator and couldn’t breathe on his own. A junior medical examiner performed an electroencephalogram (EEG) to determine electrical activity on Tucker brain;; The examiner stated that there were none. The surgeons said this was sufficient evidence of this Brain death;; Tucker was removed from the ventilator, and Hume and Lower removed Tucker’s heart for the transplant, Jones wrote.
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Decades later, in 1981, the Uniform provision of the death law provided a legal definition of death: “irreversible cessation of circulatory and pulmonary functions” and “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain”, which means that the entire brain – including the brain stem – no longer functions, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
But in 1968 the legal concept of death wasn’t as clearly defined, Jones said.
“There was no legal framework to let doctors know what to do in a situation like this where they had a patient they rightly believed had no chance of recovery,” said Jones. “And from their point of view, time was crucial to save a very sick man.” However, doctors were also quick to assume Tucker was needy and without a family – a racially motivated verdict, Jones said.
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Tucker’s family learned that the undertaker missed his heart; They pieced together what had happened from news reports (Tucker’s identity was not originally published, Jones wrote). Eventually, Tucker’s family would file a civil lawsuit for wrongful death, which was brought to trial in 1972. She was represented by L. Douglas Wilder, attorney who later became the first elected black governor in the United States
According to Wilder, Lower declared, “Prior to his actual death, Bruce O. Tucker deliberately, wrongly, willfully and deliberately pronounced dead, knowing that he was not legally qualified to do so.” State law required that the family be notified and waited 24 hours before performing the operation.
“They bypassed the Virginia process because they were so eager to finally get the operation done,” Jones said.
The famous case of Henrietta is missing presents a similar collision between medical ethics and racism. Lacks, a black woman (also from Virginia), was co-diagnosed in 1951 cervical cancer. A doctor collected cells from one of her tumors and then reproduced them indefinitely in the laboratory. After Lack’s death, these cells were widely distributed among scientists for years without the knowledge or permission of her family. Known as the HeLa cell line, they have been used in research that led to cancer treatments and the discovery of the polio vaccineBut decades passed before Lack’s family learned of her medical “immortality”.
In 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reached an agreement with the family to enable future research with data from HeLa cells. The new process requires application by a panel that includes descendants and relatives of Lacks, Live Science previously reported.
“The Body Man”
The injustices Lacks, Tucker, and their families experienced stemmed from racism deeply ingrained in America’s medical infrastructure, Jones noted. In fact, when medical schools in America took a more hands-on approach to anatomical study in the 19th century, instructors often trained their students in human anatomy on corpses of blacks stolen from African-American cemeteries, Jones wrote.
Grave robbery was technically illegal, but when blacks were the victims, Jones said authorities tended to look the other way. Medical schools would hire a “body man” (also known as a “resurrection fighter”) to retrieve bodies; At MCV, the designated grave robber was a black man named Chris Baker, a school caretaker who lived in the basement of the college’s Egyptian building.
Most medical schools in the country abandoned this racist method of retrieving corpses in the mid-19th century, but records suggest it lasted in Virginia until at least 1900, Jones said.
“There has been news of bodies being” abducted “from the Virginia State Pen, which is about five blocks from the medical school,” he said.
Jones unexpectedly discovered a memory of this crime while researching his book in a mural on display at MCV’s McGlothlin Medical Education Center. Painted between 1937 and 1947 by Richmond artist George Murrill, the mural celebrates the history of the medical school. And it contains the picture of a corpse being stealthily carried away from a grave in a wheelbarrow.
“It shows how the legacy of racism is literally right under people’s noses,” Jones said.
“The Organ Thieves” is available to buy on August 18; Read an excerpt here .
Originally published on Live Science.