With the recent publication of the book The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South, we must acknowledge the past transgressions within the healthcare system and donation and transplantation field in the United States.
The Organ Thieves is about Bruce Tucker, a Black man who suffered a head injury in 1968 and was taken to a top research hospital in Virginia to be treated. Tucker passed away from his injury and hospital staff moved forward with recovering his organs for donation, and he became the first heart donor in the segregated South. The book highlights how hospital staff failed to communicate with Tucker’s family and get proper authorization before going forward with the donation process, a continuation of medical practices that marginalized and mistreated Black people at the time.
Unfortunately, woven into the history of donation and transplantation in the U.S. is a painful reality of the injustices of which people of color were subjected. We must learn from past experiences and use them to inform future actions. Here we take a look at how the organ and tissue donation system has evolved since the Bruce Tucker case outlined in The Organ Thieves.
The Organ Donation Process Today: Authorization
Our mission at Donor Alliance is to save lives through organ, eye and tissue donation and transplantation. It is our duty as a federally-designated organ procurement organization to ensure organ donation is optimized and executed in the fairest and most ethical manner. We’re committed to saving and healing lives through our work, regardless of background, race or ethnicity.
Early on in the field of organ donation and transplantation, and in medicine at large, clear, equitable processes were not yet in place. Incidents, such as in the Tucker case, are why stringent processes have been put in place to ensure transparency and accountability in the organ and tissue donation authorization process.
Today, we have discussions with each family of a potential organ and tissue donor to make sure that they are informed about the organ donation process and to ensure that their loved one’s decision is honored.
The following authorization process is followed throughout Colorado and Wyoming during every case, regardless of the race of the donor:
- Local organ procurement organization (OPO) personnel are notified that a potential donor faces imminent brain death or has passed away.
- An automated search of the registry database for the potential donor is triggered.
- If the potential donor is identified within the database as a registered donor, the family is notified of their loved one’s donor designation status, provided with source documentation and detailed information on how the donation process will work.
- If the potential donor is not registered as a donor at the time of death, his or her family can give authorization for their loved one to be a donor. The donation process proceeds only after the family has granted authorization and completed required paperwork.
- A medical evaluation then takes place, including obtaining the donor’s complete medical and social history from the family.
Authorization and the family discussion are just one step of the organ donation process, and happen separately and independently from the diagnosis of the patient and the declaration of death.
Apart from a fair and transparent authorization process, we work to ensure education about donation and transplantation is accessible to people of color in our region, including outreach to specifically meet the needs of the Black community.
To sign up to be an organ, eye and tissue donor, simply say Yes at the DMV or driver license office the next time you obtain or renew your license or state I.D. You can also sign up anytime online at DonateLifeColorado.org or DonateLifeWyoming.org.