Surgeons Stole Black Man’s Heart for White Businessman


The following is an excerpt from The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones.

In May 1968, Bruce Tucker, a Black factory worker, suffered a skull fracture and was rushed to the Medical College of Virginia (MCV). In less than 24 hours, MCV surgeons Dr. Richard Lower and Dr. David Hume had transplanted Tucker’s heart into the chest of Joseph G. Klett, a white businessman, prompting America’s first civil lawsuit for wrongful death of its kind.

The following passage recounts Bruce Tucker’s final hours, as his brother William endeavored in vain to discover Bruce’s condition and whereabouts, while Drs. Lower and Hume proceeded with an operation that would soon come under great scrutiny by the press and the law.

Saturday, May 25, 1968, 2:30 p.m.

William Tucker was hard at work when the phone rang. It was a friend who worked about fifteen blocks away, at MCV. “Did you know Bruce is here?” he asked in a hushed tone. “There’s something strange going on.”

“What are you talking about?”

William set down a pair of shoes on his workbench. His days were long — opening at 6:00 a.m. and closing at 6:00 p.m. — Monday through Saturday. The demand from customers was steady. People needed their shoes.

He was his own boss and ran a neat shop. His workbench was lined with the tools of his cobbler’s trade — hammers, scissors, a ruler, various threads and needles, and leather for repairs.

So what was this call about? An operation involving Bruce? As far as he knew, his brother was fine. His friend started to tell him more, but said someone was coming, then hung up.

William reached for the phone book, searching for the hospital’s main number. When he finally reached the information desk, he was told Bruce was in an operating room.

Operating? William wanted to know. On what? The receptionist blithely suggested he might want to come over to find out. Bruce tried explaining his situation and how he was stuck at work. But the receptionist was no help.

“You’ll have to come over,” she said.

Around that time, a friend of Bruce Tucker’s set out on her own fact-finding mission. Mrs. Evelyn Gregory took the bus from the east side of town down Broad Street and over to MCV hospital. It’s not clear how she learned about Bruce’s situation, but it may have been the same insider who tipped off William.

Though she visited the hospital in person, Mrs. Gregory also struck out. Either no one knew anything, or they had been instructed not to talk.

Undeterred, she crossed the alley to St. Philip Hospital, where “colored” wards had long been in place. Despite its recent integration, Evelyn Gregory could see the signs of the hospital’s second-class status that remained — moldy ceiling tiles, cracks in the linoleum floor, and old benches. The smell of floor wax and disinfectant hung in the air.

She gathered up her courage and approached the front counter. She asked about her missing friend.

But even here, at the old hospital for black Virginians, no one could give her any help.

Walking out, Mrs. Gregory thought, Bruce, where are you?

2:45 p.m.

Dr. David Hume’s dual operating teams were scrubbed in and ready to go. Bruce Tucker, his heart still beating strong, “was taken back into the operating room in preparation for the removal of his heart and both kidneys. He was receiving oxygen to continue the viability of his heart and both kidneys.

“During the same period, he was receiving solutions of dextrose and saline to furnish nourishment to the organs.”

3:30 p.m.

Bruce Tucker’s treating physician, Dr. B. W. Brawley switched off the ventilator keeping Bruce alive. Glancing at his watch, Brawley marked the end of MCV’s artificial life support: 3:30 ½ p.m. He believed there was no sentient life left to support.

As Bruce lost the ability to breathe on his own, he didn’t flail around as he had before noon. After five minutes, a man who only hours before was hanging out with his friends, breathed his last. Time of Death, Brawley wrote on his chart, 3:33 p.m.

In the adjoining room, Dr. Richard Lower began opening Joseph Klett’s chest to receive its new heart.

3:35 ½ p.m.

William Tucker called MCV again, his heart racing. He went through the same frustrating routine with a receptionist. But this time he learned something new. Bruce had been taken into a “recovery room.”

Recovery room? he thought. What does that mean?

On the eleventh floor of the hospital, where the transplant team was hard at work, any idea of “recovery” had taken on a strange double meaning. The surgeons went to work recovering what they wanted. Bruce Tucker’s body represented a valuable asset for the transplant team because his heart — still being pumped with oxygen — was being prepared for transplantation. So were his kidneys.

Only one more thing was needed. Hume picked up the phone. “Mr. Tucker’s been pronounced dead,” he informed Dr. Abdullah Fatteh.

It was what the assistant medical examiner needed to hear. Now, in Fatteh’s mind, everything was going by the book. Though he hadn’t examined Tucker himself, he felt the right boxes had been checked. Now he was ready to check the final one.

“You can take out his organs,” Fatteh told Hume.

Actually, one legal box had been left unchecked: the provision in Virginia’s Unclaimed Bodies Act requiring a twenty-four-hour waiting period before a body could be used for research purposes. It’s not clear whether the surgeons knew of this provision in the law or if they discussed it. But as subsequent court testimony and oral history accounts would show, the surgeons felt they made good-faith efforts to contact Tucker’s relatives.

Nonetheless, whether intentionally or not, no one at MCV thought to check with their front-desk receptionists to see if anyone had been searching for Bruce Tucker. Apparently, nobody at the information desk thought to tell them.

Copyright © 2020 by Chip Jones. Reprinted by permission of Jeter Publishing/Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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