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Medical students’ intimate connection with the dead

Dr. Al-Walid El-Bermani, professor of anatomy at Tufts University School of Medicine, said doctors never forget their first-year cadaver. “Each one carries a secret,” he said.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Jessica Gonzalez cried when she first saw the cadaver she would dissect as a first-year medical student — moved by the generosity of someone who donated her body for education.

“She will always be my first patient,” said Gonzalez, now in her fourth year at Tufts University School of Medicine.

With a team of several other students, Gonzalez had spent months working on the body in a windowless basement laboratory little-changed since the 1960s. But in a couple of years, future medical students will likely face their cadavers in a newer and brighter environment.

On Wednesday, Tufts is expected to announce a $15 million gift from the Jaharis Family Foundation that will relocate the anatomy laboratory to the third floor, double its size, and equip it with advanced digital imaging equipment. A portion of the donation will also provide scholarships for students starting careers in family practice.


The plans, officials said, reinforce Tufts’ commitment to dissection as a bedrock aspect of medical education, even as digital technology can provide detailed images of every nook and cranny of human anatomy.

The three other medical schools in Massachusetts — at Boston University, Harvard University, and the University of Massachusetts — also continue to teach anatomy with cadavers.

Gonzalez said images are no substitute for exploring and discovering the body with one’s own hands. And the emotional connection with the donor also plays a powerful role in learning, she said. For her, that link intensified when she learned her donor had died of Parkinson’s disease, the same illness that claimed her grandfather.

Medical student Jessica Gonzalez (center) worked with classmates Bryce Meyer and Shane Davis (right).Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Shane Davis, a fourth-year medical student, said, “You’re making a connection with a real person. It’s the start of feeling like you’re caring for people.”

The students know only the donor’s first name, age, and cause of death. At a memorial service at the end of the school year, they often meet relatives, who share photos and stories. The donor’s remains are then cremated and returned to the family.


Dr. Al-Walid El-Bermani, professor of anatomy, said doctors never forget their first-year cadaver.

“Each one carries a secret,” he said.

More than 60 years later, El-Bermani’s voice still shakes with sadness and frustration when he recalls discovering his cadaver’s secret: The woman was rendered infertile by an abnormality that could have been easily repaired. She apparently had never sought treatment.

Peter H. Brodeur, director of the division of medical education at Tufts, said the new gross anatomy laboratory — expected to open in 2018 in the Biomedical Research and Public Health Building — will provide natural light, a plus for students who spend dozens of hours there. The current lab was built for 120 students, he said. Today, 200 medical, 200 dental, and 50 physician assistant students use the laboratory each year.

Imaging equipment will allow students to compare CT scans, ultrasounds, and X-rays with the interior of a real body. Each dissection table will have surgical lighting and computer screens.

The gift from the Jaharis Family Foundation includes $2 million to provide scholarships to middle- and low-income students who will pursue careers in family medicine, a lower-paying specialty.

“The need for primary care physicians in America is growing, and I hope that this scholarship will help students who go into family medicine graduate with less loan debt,” Dr. Steven Jaharis, the foundation’s director and a Chicago-area family doctor who graduated from Tufts medical school in 1987, said in a statement.


Dr. Harris A. Berman, Tufts medical school dean, said Jaharis “is a graduate of ours who went into family medicine at a time when no one in Boston was encouraging people to go into family medicine.”

The gift continues a long history of donations to the Tufts medical school from the Jaharis Family Foundation, including money for a building that nearly doubled research space, an endowed professorship in family medicine, and other renovations and scholarships.

Medical tools lined up inside the medical school’s anatomy lab.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Freelance

Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.