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This year’s first History and Health: Racial Equity forum is today at noon — register now

Series explores racism and what can be done to improve access to health care.

Panelists' headshots, names and titles

By James Shea and Esther Benenson

 The VCU Office of Health Equity’s first History and Health: Racial Equity forum of 2022 will take place today, Wednesday, March 2, at noon. The topic is “Medical Research and the First Heart Transplant in the South.”

The title refers to the first heart transplant to take place at VCU Medical Center, at that time the Medical College of Virginia (MCV), in 1968. The case was recounted in Chip Jones’ 2020 book, “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South.” 

First heart transplant leads to meaningful discussion

Founded in 2021, the History and Health series explores how the university’s complex history affects health system patients today and how the VCU community will use these lessons to improve health care for all.

In 1968, MCV doctors used the heart of a deceased Black patient for transplant without consent from the man’s family. It was a move representative of historic racial injustices perpetrated by the medical community across the nation.

“We really need to understand and learn from our history because it will be important to inform the path we pave for the organization going forward. This knowledge will help shape our policies, our practices and ultimately our culture,” said Sheryl Garland, chief of health impact at VCU Health and one of the leaders who established the series. “The History and Health initiative can not only provide education, but also serve as a guide regarding the level of intentionality we must embrace to ensure progress towards achieving health equity.”

Health inequities are particularly visible today in the midst of COVID-19, notes Logan Vetrovec, M.Ed., director of education and research in the VCU Office of Health Equity. Social determinants of health are impacting and exacerbating historic disparities in health care access and outcomes, which are more prevalent among communities of color, she said. COVID hospitalizations and deaths are hitting the Black community hard.

The series’ second forum, April 8, explores that very issue. Coughing and Scoffing: Inequities in the Time of COVID-19” will explore the pandemic’s impact on longstanding, structural racial inequalities within the health care system during the COVID pandemic.

Openness, transparency crucial to effecting change

Acceptance of the past and an openness to change are key to resolving health disparities, Vetrovec notes, as is diverse and transparent discussion.

“[In developing History and Health], we decided to really tell the history of our health system, and that includes talking about our racist policies and practices and learn from that,” she said. “Let's talk about it. Let's understand that our patients who are walking through the door might have certain feelings toward us because of that history, and we need to be aware of that.”

“Our history shapes us, but it does not define us and it does not confine us,” said Kevin A. Harris, Ph.D., associate vice president for strategic initiatives and engagement in the Office of the Senior Vice President for Health Sciences at VCU, who co-led development of the program. “We get a chance to write this next chapter. That’s what we’re hoping with this initiative, and that’s what I would want my fellow community members to understand. We will do this as a collective, and we will break out of whatever we feel that history has presented us with.”

Vetrovec is hopeful that the series’ discussions will filter into the medical classroom. Students should have a firm understanding of the structural and racial inequalities that exists within the medical community, she said. Access to health care is not equal, and that needs to be top of mind for medical students, she related.

Register now

History and Health: Racial Equity is open to all faculty, staff, students and VCU Health team members as well as the general public. Events are free and, as of now, take place virtually. Events are co-sponsored by the Humanities Research Center and the Office of Health Equity. Register here.

Wednesday, March 2, 12 p.m. Discussion follows at 12:45 p.m.
Medical Research and the First Heart Transplant in the South

Carlos Smith, D.D.S., director of diversity, equity and inclusion in the VCU School of Dentistry and an associate professor in the VCU Department of Dental Public Health and Policy, will moderate the panel discussion.

Panelists include:

  • Phillip Duncan, M.D., medical director at Cardiac Health Management Network
  • Jodi Koste, university archivist and interim director of the Special Collections and Archives at VCU Libraries
  • John McCarty, M.D., director of VCU Massey Cancer Center’s Cellular Immunotherapies and Transplant Program
  • Heart transplant patient Denise Davis, who received a heart transplant in 2018

Register here.

Friday, April 8, 12:00 p.m. Discussion follows at 12:45 p.m.
Coughing and Scoffing: Inequities in the Time of COVID-19
Chris Cynn, Ph.D., associate professor in the VCU Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, will moderate the panel.

Panelists include:

  • Melissa Viray, director, Richmond and Henrico health districts
  • John Powers, chair, VCU Department of History
  • Regina Boone, photojournalist, Richmond Free Press
  • Luise "Cheezi" Farmer, chair, Diversity Richmond

These virtual events are free and open to the community, but space is limited.

A third History and Health forum is being planned for May. Details will be announced once finalized.

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