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State officials look into Stony Brook cadaver case

Aaron Hartman, who was a Stony Brook medical

Aaron Hartman, who was a Stony Brook medical student at the time the photo was taken, gives a thumbs-up over a cadaver in a Stony Brook laboratory. The photo was posted on the Facebook page of Erica Katz. Credit: Undated

A resident physician at Stony Brook University Medical Center who posted a photograph of a former classmate giving two thumbs up next to a cadaver apologized to faculty members over the weekend for the "uproar" her acts caused as state health officials said they would be looking into the matter.

In three separate e-mails, Erica Katz of Port Jefferson, who works in the emergency medicine unit at the medical center, told faculty members that posting the photo on her Facebook page was a mistake.

>>>LETTER: Click here to read Erica Katz’s apology

"It was absolutely and unquestionably egregious, idiotic, disrespectful, and thoughtless for me to ever have taken that picture, and exponentially worse to have posted in on Facebook," she wrote in one of the letters referring to the photograph she said she took several years ago.

In the same note, she said, "I had not planned to take pictures of the cadaver, it was a spur of the moment act of idiocy, and I can assure you that no other pictures were ever taken. I had honestly forgotten it existed, let alone that I had posted it online and that it was still there, and I am horrified to think how much trouble and embarrassment I have caused all of you."

University spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow said the student who appeared in the picture, Aaron Hartman, also wrote to express his contrition: "I sincerely apologize to the deans, professors of the anatomy course, and most importantly, to the deceased for this picture"

Asked through a colleague and Sheprow to comment, Katz declined.

Monday, Dean Richard Fine met with faculty members, who referred the matter to the committee on academic standards. That panel will recommend to Fine what, if any, disciplinary action will be taken against Katz. Fine will have the final say.

The medical school will also develop a social media policy, guidelines for students on what is appropriate and inappropriate to post on social networking sites.

Further, the school will formalize and put into writing what has been an unofficial policy of prohibiting students from taking pictures in anatomy class.

The incident caught the attention of the state Department of Health, which regulates the handling of cadavers. "We expect that they will be taking appropriate steps to ensure this does not happen again," said Health Department spokeswoman Claire Pospisil.

The photo, which features Hartman wearing purple gloves and smiling over a cadaver with both thumbs up, was taken during an anatomy class. The course is typically taken during a medical student's first year.

Hartman has since graduated, said Sheprow. His Facebook page indicated he graduated in 2009.

Observers said the incident was a rare ethical breach committed by physicians in training, who are all reminded to treat the human body - dead or alive - with dignity.

Josephine Johnston, research scholar at the Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y., a nonprofit bioethics research institute, said it's not common for medical students to fail to show proper respect for a cadaver, but that it happens. "Maybe it's a coping mechanism, because it's potentially quite difficult to deal with the fact that you're cutting up a dead body," Johnston said.

Dr. Todd R. Olson, professor of anatomy at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and president of the American Association of Clinical Anatomists, said the incident speaks to a lack of professionalism and judgment by both students.

Photography is not banned in dissection laboratories at Einstein, Olson said, and each medical school can create its own policy regarding photography.

But cadavers should be treated respectfully, he said, and students need to acknowledge that the cadaver is there as a gift to further their education.

"Don't you think as a result that one has every reasonable expectation that you're not going to show up with somebody holding two thumbs up over Uncle Dick on Facebook?" Olson asked.

With Zachary R. Dowdy

>>>LETTER: Click here to read Erica Katz’s apology

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