In June, dental students and a University of Connecticut orthodontics professor took a selfie with severed cadaver heads during a medical training workshop at Yale which, according to the Associated Press, “focused on dental-related facial deformities.” The wire broke the story on Monday but declined to publish the photo because the person who took it “would not give the AP permission to publish it for fear of being expelled.”
It’s not unusual for an egregious selfie to go viral, but it is rare for a selfie to go viral without the actual selfie. That speaks volumes to the shocking (and inarguably unethical) nature of this particular selfie. Absent of any visual evidence, the description alone prompted the likes of the Associated Press, ABC News, the Washington Post, and yes, Gizmodo to cover the news. The photo was reportedly taken during a 2017 DePuy Synthes Future Leaders Workshop at Yale University. Dr. Flavio Uribe of UConn was using the cadaver heads to show students how to place screws during surgery.
Gizmodo has obtained the selfie, which was allegedly posted in a WhatsApp group. Our tipster asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the university and Dr. Uribe. The photo contains a group of students, Dr. Uribe, and two severed heads. (Gizmodo blurred the faces of the heads in the image below.)
“Somebody unfortunately took a photo,” Uribe told the Associated Press. “It was so quick. I wasn’t sure of the surroundings or scenery at that point.” The University of Connecticut directed us to the Associated Press article for its statement. Yale spokesman Thomas Conroy told Gizmodo in an email that there are signs at every entrance to the lab which indicate that photography is not allowed.
“The photograph taken at a symposium held by DePiuy Synthes was disturbing and an inexcusable deviation from anything Yale would expect to occur,” Conroy said in a statement. “Yale is developing a centralized coordinating function to ensure adequate oversight is provided for use of anatomical parts in any training at the school, whether it is conducted by Yale or, as in this case, someone else” he added. Conroy noted that the symposium, hosted by Depuy Synthes—orthopaedic and neurosurgery companies owned by Johnson & Johnson—is not a Yale program, and that the cadavers were not donated to Yale. The space was leased by DePuy Synthes.
“DePuy Synthes, as well as the universities we work with, have policies and contractual obligations to ensure that confidentiality of donor identity is maintained,” a DePuy Synthes spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email. “The respectful use of cadavers for surgeon training has an important role in advancing education and, ultimately, in helping to save lives.”
Arthur Caplan, Head of Medical Ethics at the NYU School of Medicine, told Gizmodo that a good policy for doctors “is to put your iPhone away” until you are off duty. “You don’t want people feeling they are exploited, that somehow they got turned into an opportunity for entertainment or amusement.”
Caplan noted that the motive behind the selfie is not inherently malicious or invasive—the students might have wanted to capture a visual of how they train, perhaps to show to a parent or other students, but that ultimately “it doesn’t matter” because they don’t have consent.
What’s more, taking photos with identifiable cadaver parts, such as the head, could potentially offend family or survivors of the donor. It’s also disrespectful to the donor of the tissue. And it’s also a disservice to organ donation, discouraging people from wanting to donate in the first place.
“It really could impact willingness of people to participate in body part donation in the future,” Caplan said.
Leigh Turner, an Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics, told Gizmodo that when someone decides to donate their body to a medical school, there is an understanding that it will be used in a professional and respectful way. He said that selfies break that understanding, “trivializing a significant donation.”
Turner noted that this selfie isn’t atypical to the history of medical training. In December, for instance, doctors and staff at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Bedford Memorial Hospital were disciplined after taking photos on their phones of a patient’s genitals while the patient was under anesthesia. In 2010, both Stony Brook University Medical Center in Long Island and the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse updated their ethics policies after students posted photos of themselves with donated body parts on Facebook. Turner said that these acts, like the selfie taken at Yale last summer, raise issues of the mistreatment of an organ donor as well as a violation of a social media policy. Taking a selfie with two severed heads “is an obvious violation of institutional policies,” he said, adding that one should not “treat deceased bodies as an object of ridicule or amusement.”
We have reached out to Uribe, and we will update if he responds.