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Two severed heads, one selfie and a lesson in ethics for medical students

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Medical professionals are bound by a strict code of ethics.

And it’s one that would most probably include NOT taking a selfie with two severed heads from cadavers.

That was a lesson graduate dental students and a top University of Connecticut orthodontics professor learned last week when a copy of the selfie they took at a training workshop last year at Yale University was obtained by the Associated Press.

Yale officials have condemned the behaviour as “disturbing” and “inexcusable”.

The people in the selfie were several graduate dental school students and physician Flavio Uribe, an assistant professor and orthodontics programme director at UConn Health and a visiting professor at Yale.

All wore surgical masks as they looked at the camera. With two severed, face-up heads on tables nearby.

It was taken last June at the Yale School of Medicine during the 2017 DePuy Synthes Future Leaders Workshop, which focused on dental-related facial deformities.

The AP wrote that a person, who demanded to be anonymous for fear of potential harm to their career, had received the selfie through a private group chat. But the person said it was not given permission to publish the selfie by the person who took it, as they feared reprisals.

Uribe told the AP he was teaching students how to place screws in the cadaver heads.

“Somebody, unfortunately, took a photo,” Uribe said.

“It was so quick. I wasn’t sure of the surroundings or scenery at that point.”

In a statement, UConn Health’s chief communications officer Christopher Hyers said: “UConn Health was made aware of the matter at the time it happened and took appropriate internal steps.”

Uribe said he had never been disciplined by UConn for any reason.

A spokesman for Yale said the School of Medicine, Thomas Conroy, took the matter very seriously. He said there was clear signage forbidding photography at each entrance to the laboratory.

“The photograph taken at a symposium at Yale was disturbing and an inexcusable deviation from anything Yale would expect to occur,” Conroy said in a statement.

“The faculty member who was involved in the training at which the photograph was taken has been informed of Yale’s expectations in this regard.”

Conroy said the heads were not donated to Yale and that the symposium was not part of Yale’s anatomy programme.

The AP wrote it did not know how the heads were obtained.

Operating with cadavers is a usual rite of passage for every medical student. A Stanford Medicine News Center’s story describes how on the first day of anatomy lab for first-years starts with a moment of silence in honour of the donated cadavers on their tables, before unzipping them from their plastic covering.

It’s a stark contrast from how Uribe and his students had treated the donated bodies.

Victor Contreras, a student from San Diego, said he had mixed feelings the morning before the reported Stanford anatomy lab.

“I’m obviously very excited. At the same time, I’m kind of nervous. This is a human person. This is someone’s loved one. I’ll basically be cutting them up.”

“Every now and then it hits me this is a real person.”

Another student, Osama El-Gabalawy, said: “We’ll be looking inside somebody who gave their life and their body.”

Lawrence Rizzolo, a surgery professor and director of medical studies at the Yale School of Medicine, told the AP that the selfie photo was “an egregious violation of Yale policy”.

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