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VCU Office of Health Equity will host the first annual History and Health: Racial Equity Symposium on September 21

The symposium kicks off a full year of health equity events at VCU, including a keynote by "The Organ Thieves" author Chip Jones

Illustration of people standing in front of a large building

By Joan Tupponce

Shirley Helm’s joy of learning and growing led her to take the Racial Equity series of the VCU History and Health program in the spring of 2021.

"I took it for a couple of reasons," said Helm, senior administrator for network capacity and workforce strategy at the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research. "It is directly related to my work. I thought this was really timely. It was extremely educational, informative and valuable for working in this environment."

She was so impressed that she made it a requirement for any new employee in her area to take the series.

"It’s important for them to know the landscape in which we function," she said. "We can grow from the past by understanding what we have done in the past."

History and Health falls under the VCU Office of Health Equity, overseen by Executive Director Sheryl Garland. The office launched in 2021 after the success of a five-year health equity initiative involving Virginia Commonwealth University, VCU Health System and community partners. The office now works to educate people about health equity and the importance of addressing social and economic factors that influence health in order to work toward helping everyone achieve optimal health.

"Put in plain English, there are factors (I call it the 'stuff' in people's lives) that impact their health. These may be related to age, race, gender, locality, housing situation, economic status, etc. that ultimately impact the length and/or quality of people’s lives," Garland said.

The educational programs are designed to enhance awareness regarding historical events that have shaped VCU’s health care delivery and educational systems. They also create forums for thoughtful discussions regarding the opportunities to advance health equity, address health disparities, and support VCU and VCU Health’s diversity, equity and inclusion goals to build more inclusive environments for students, patients, family and community members.

"This work is helping to broaden the perspective about what it means to be healthy beyond addressing clinical conditions and curing diseases," Garland said, adding she is excited about the work the office has done to date. "But there is a great deal that still needs to be done."

The office launched the History and Health program in March 2021 to provide insight into the history of VCU’s Medical Campus and the links to the history of the City of Richmond and current health care policies and practices.

"The educational programs provide an opportunity to enhance awareness regarding historical events that have shaped VCU's health care delivery and educational systems. They also create forums for thoughtful discussions regarding the opportunities to advance health equity, address health disparities, and support VCU and VCU Health's diversity, equity and inclusion goals," Garland said. "Understanding our past establishes a strong foundation that allows us to utilize lessons learned to build more inclusive environments for students, patients, family and community members."

The series of educational events and modules produced to date have focused on enhancing the understanding of the impact of race and racism on health care and many of the health disparities that continue to be documented.

"This understanding is critical to support efforts to close the gaps in health care and improve health outcomes for all," Garland said.

The first annual History and Health Symposium features multiple topics on health

VCU Office of Health Equity will host the first annual Racial Equity Symposium on Sept. 21 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the McGlothlin Medical Education Center. Participants will take part in examining the impact of history on current health inequities, social determinants of health, and the role of art and activism in advancing health equity.

The event includes workshops and keynote speakers Deirdre Owens Cooper, the Charles and Linda Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine and the director of the Humanities in Medicine program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the author of "Medical Racism Then & Now: When You Know Better, You Do Better," and Michelle Browder, the artist and activist who created the “Mothers of Gynecology” monument in Montgomery, Alabama. In addition, two workshop tracks will be offered: the Intersection of Arts and Health Equity track and the History and Health Inequities track. For further details, visit the History and Health: Racial Equity Symposium event page.

VCU’s 2022 Common Book looks at health equity, inspired educational video series

The Common Book program will feature a keynote address from Chip Jones, author of "The Organ Thieves," which chronicles events in the history of the Medical College of Virginia not only as it relates to an important milestone for the transplant program, but also in regard to historical practices across the institution that led to disparate treatment and disregard of the rights of African Americans – both patients and their remains, said Garland.

The book tells the story of Bruce Tucker, a Black man who went to the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond in 1968 with a head injury only to later have his heart taken out and transplanted to the chest of a white businessman.

"It is important that VCU is transparent and forthright regarding its history. It is difficult for healing to occur without the acknowledgement of truth. I am hopeful the dialogues that will occur through the Common Book program this year will provide opportunities to continue this healing process," Garland said.

VCU students, especially first-year students at VCU, are asked to read the Common Book and participate in events related to the book. VCU Health has created additional resources for students who are looking for additional information on the subject of health equity. The resources, including an epilogue video to the Common Book and a health equity video series are available on the Common Book’s resource pages.

Senior Carley Harrison, a psychology major, didn’t have any preconceived ideas when she read "The Organ Thieves."

"I feel like I gained a new perspective about the racial injustices imposed on African Americans within the medical field. This book elaborated on how severe systemic racism is within the medical community," she said.

Jones first heard the story of the "historic first heart transplant" in 2016 while working at the Richmond Academy of Medicine as communication director. It took Jones three years to research and write the book.

He wanted to tell the story of what happened to Tucker, a Black factory worker, whose heart was transplanted without his family's consent.

"He was a forgotten figure in Virginia history. His story had never been completely explored," Jones said, adding he’s glad the book is sparking a wider conversation. "My initial gut was just to tell the story of Bruce Tucker. I had no idea the impact it would have at VCU and around the country."

Jones will give his keynote lecture on Oct. 12 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Singleton Center.

For additional information about upcoming health equity events, visit https://healthequity.vcu.edu/.