Bruce Tucker had been declared brain dead after an accidental fall and his family only found out his organs were missing when they were told by a funeral director
It is one of the greatest unknown scandals in American history.
When black factory worker Bruce Tucker was declared brain dead after an accidental fall doctors stole his heart and implanted it into the body of a white businessman.
His grief-stricken family only discovered the 54-year-old’s heart was missing when a small town funeral director told them it had gone – along with both his kidneys.
Bruce’s family launched the first ever court case of its type for wrongful death but, as America’s medics raced to become world-leaders in the brave new world of transplants, they lost their fight for compensation.
The story has faded away with the annals of time but now Bruce’s tragic demise is told in a new book The Organ Thieves which examines medical morality.
Set in 1968 against a background of civil unrest, Bruce’s death played out against a background of racial conflict, the pursuit of medical excellence and the determination of two surgeons to perform their first heart transplant.
And the subsequent court case set an historical landmark in the definition of death.
Author Chip Jones said: “When I first heard the story of Bruce Tucker I was shocked. His death shines a light on racial inequalities of healthcare witch still exist today to some extent and is one of systemic racism.
“When he was brought into the emergency room he was a black man with alcohol on his breath, seemingly wth no family, and we have to ask what part that played in the decision by doctors to remove his heart.”
Bruce, who had grown up on a farm, was a simple man who worked in an egg processing plant and sent more than half his wages home to his mother Emma, 80, who lived an hour away and looked after his 15-year-old son Abraham.
He had been drinking a bottle of wine behind an Esso station in Richmond, Virginia, in May 1968, when he fell off a wall and hit his head.
Bruce was taken to the state’s largest teaching hospital, the Medical College of Virigina, where desegregation had existed until the Civil Right Act four years earlier.
Doctors operated to relieve swelling on Bruce’s brain and a tracheotomy to help him breath.
Upstairs at the same hospital, retired businessman Joseph Klett, 54, from Orange, a town 75 miles away, had suffered several heart attacks and had severe blockage of his arteries.
Less than 24 hours after being admitted, Bruce’s heart was placed into Klett’s body in the world’s 16th heart transplant. Klett lived just a few days.
The procedure was carried out by a team of surgeons led by Richard Lower and David Hume, who had previously operated on dogs and monkeys, and were desperate to win the race to perform one of the world’s first heart transplants.
While the Russian launch of Sputnick in 1957 heralded the start of the space race, breakthroughs in medical science sparked a global pursuit of the first heart transplant.
Lower and Hume were able to go ahead with the procedure after police were twice unable to track down any relatives of Bruce when they visited the rooming house where he lived.
By law they should have waited 24 hours until after death but they helped persuade an assistant medical examiner to declare Bruce an ‘unclaimed body’ under State law.
Tragically, Bruce carried a business card for his brother William, who ran a cobblers shop in Richmond, but nobody thought to look in his pockets.
Bruce’s death came at a time of great social unrest.
Civil rights activist Martin Luther King had been assasinated a month earlier in Memphis, sparking riots across the country.
In Richmond itself a councilman provoked fury by suggesting blacks did not want to work while a local newspaper report told how a burning cross was thrown into a woman’s garden.
On the day police officers were sent to find Bruce’s relatives, a newspaper warned that the downtown area had become a “powderkeg” after 300 people took to the streets to protest the shooting by a white secruity guard who opened fire on a fleeing shoplifter who survived.
Chip said: “When police got to his rooms they asked someone if they knew of his family.
“They said no but, given the tension at the time, it’s not clear whether they would have given the police any information.
“Bruce’s brother only worked a few blocks away and had been frantically searching for him when he discovered he was at the hospital. When he arrived he was told his brother was dead.
“He went home to Stony Creek in Virginia where the the local undertaker later told him his brother’s heart and two kidneys were missing.
“If Bruce had been someone who didn’t have family connections, who wasn’t viewed as socially unimportant the outcome may have been different, but in this case being black made it a no brainer for the surgeons.”
Bruce’s brother William was enraged and engaged the services of a black criminal attorney called Doug Wilder, who later became the first elected black elected African-America governer.
In a David and Goliath battle, Wilder took on the might of the medial establishment and filed a £1million law suit against the surgeons and the assistant medical examiner who had given them permission to use Bruce’s body, Dr Abdullah Fatteh.
Legislation ruled that bodies could not be used for medical reasons until 24 hours after death.
It emerged that Fatteh had sought the advice of his boss but he was out of town and could not be contacted.
Lower and Hume convinced him it would be too late by then.
The court case centred on determining the official legal definition of brain death and a jury decided the doctors had not acted wrongfully.
Chip said: “Bruce’s family were unable to determine whether he would have survived because the definition of brain dead was one that was still being debated at the time.
“Bruce was a man caught in the crosshairs of history because doctors through they were just doing their jobs and didn’t think he was going to live.
“Assuming he wouldn’t have, if doctors had followed the law, his family would have at least been given the chance to say goodbye.”
As for Hume and Lower, they had already been beaten in the quest to perform the world’s first human to human heart transplant.
That honour went to South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard, who had spent three months in America working with them two years previously.
The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in America’s Segregated South, published by Quercus books, Is available on August 20 at a cost of £8.99.
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