As reported by The Hartford Courant, August 14, 2007.

The Corpse Collector

As UConn's Prosector, He Procures the Bodies Donated to Science and Prepares Them for Anatomy Class

By Hilda Muñoz

FARMINGTON - The hour was well past midnight and Jim Casso had just returned home after a night of gambling at Foxwoods Resort Casino. He was relaxing in a T-shirt in front the television when death called.

Actually, it was the wife of a man who had just died. The man's corpse was in a town near Norwich, waiting to be donated to science.

"I'm in the chair, I'm comatose in front of the TV, and the pager goes off," Casso recalled. "I wanted to say, `Can this wait until tomorrow morning?'"

Casso, 54, is the prosector at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and head of the school's anatomical donation program. Part of his job is to pick up bodies and prepare them for first-year medical and dental students to dissect.

Since death has no set schedule, it beckons - via a work-issued cellphone or pager - at dawn, dusk or anywhere in between, pulling Casso away from sleep, dinner or social functions and to the bedsides of dead people all over Connecticut.

Technically, the job near Norwich could have waited for a few hours. But Casso - propelled by a sense of duty and compassion for the latest donor's wife - changed into a more presentable shirt and a jacket. He climbed into his black van and headed out.

Talking and listening are another big part of being a prosector, said Casso, who has held the position since 1992. He is one of two in the state. The other works at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Casso can spend hours on the phone with prospective donors who call, their voices sometimes timorous, wondering about the anatomical donation program.

He tells them what they need to know. He'll send paperwork for them to fill out, but all he needs is verbal consent from their next of kin. No, the bodies are not sold to other medical schools.

The ideal cadaver is 21 years or older and relatively healthy. Obese and extremely underweight people don't qualify. Neither do people ill with edema, or anyone with HIV or other communicable diseases. Bodies that have been through an autopsy also don't qualify.

When the time comes, relatives can page him or they can call.

He listens to donors explain why they're interested and where they heard about the program - usually it's through word of mouth. He listens to them talk about their lives, who they are and what they did for a living.

One donor's wife called Casso almost daily for weeks just to make sure he would be available to pick up the body, Casso said.

"I think she just wanted to talk about her husband," he said.

Because the university pays to cremate the bodies, some people want to donate themselves to spare their relatives the cost of a funeral. But most - often those who had a doctor in the family - want to help.

"Some are parents of doctors who have heard stories of how their children benefited from a donated body," Casso said.

No one else works for the program. So Casso, whose office is at UConn Health Center, is in charge of everything. He arranges the donations and drives anywhere in the state to pick them up. He prepares the bodies in a lab right next to his office, stores them for the students and arranges to have them cremated.

Around springtime, he contacts relatives to tell them the ashes are ready. Most people pick them up. About a quarter don't, he said.

Since the school doesn't get rid of donor ashes, they are stored at the health center, he said. There are ashes dating to the late 1970s, he said.

Most of the bodies - about 45 are donated each year - are studied by first-year medical and dental students. They don't research specific illnesses or genetics, but learn human anatomy, he said.

The donations are absolutely vital to the students' education, said Chris Niekrash, assistant professor of surgery.

A body reveals all the secrets of anatomy and pathology, better than a model, she said.

"If you're putting an IV in someone's neck, you need to understand where the vein is in relation to the artery, in relation to the bone. Really the only way you can know that is to see it and then you'll know where to put your needle," Niekrash said.
Niekrash said she knows Casso professionally and admires the way he speaks with families and students and puts them at ease.

"He's very respectful, very aware of the emotions involved," she said.

"Students enter the anatomy lab with a great deal of trepidation and a lot of emotion. You have to really spend time with them to make them feel comfortable," she said. "You're very aware that this was a living person not that long ago who generously allowed you to learn from their body."

Each year the first-year medical and dental students organize a ceremony to commemorate the donors and invite the families of the deceased.

Casso, who grew up in Meriden, didn't plan on going into the "death business."

"I didn't even dig holes in the yard," he said.

His mother and father - a switchboard operator and a truck driver - thought he was totally losing his mind when he told them he wanted to go to mortuary school, Casso said.

His grandfather was a gravedigger in Meriden, but it was an interest in science that led Casso to this field. In high school, thinking he might like a career in medicine, he worked as an orderly at Meriden-Wallingford Hospital. At age 16 he asked to sit through an autopsy.

He was nervous.

"I remember everything about that. Afterward I had pasta with red sauce. It wasn't a good choice," he said.

A funeral director he met at the hospital offered him a job and took him under his wing. After high school, Casso went to mortuary school in New York. The decision didn't surprise his younger brother.

"That's all he's really been into his whole life. He's really good at it. He makes the people feel nice about donating the bodies - I don't know how he does it. He's very compassionate," said Tom Casso, 52, who also works at UConn Health Center delivering the donors' bodies from the cooler to the students.

Jim Casso is a licensed funeral director and embalmer. He also has a degree from Central Connecticut State University in biology, with a minor in chemistry. He worked for several funeral homes in the state, embalming bodies and directing funerals.

In 1986, he got sick of the death business and became a computer programmer. The new career was short-lived.

"I was told by my boss I was the worst programmer The Hartford Connecticut had ever seen. That's a quote," said Casso.

He applied for jobs as a researcher at UConn Health Center. He was turned down, but a couple of years later, a woman who had interviewed Casso called him when the position for prosector opened up.

"There is a real positive side to it. A lot of people benefit from bodies that I procure for the health center. It's not just dealing with the dead. It's dealing with living people, providing physicians, residents and students a resource for learning," he said.

Casso drives a black Chrysler Town & Country van. He took out the back seats to make room for two stretchers.

Tall with white hair, Casso doesn't wear black and he doesn't wear suits. He tries blending in with the people at John Dempsey Hospital by wearing long-sleeved shirts and slacks. He finds the semicasual but professional attire puts donors' relatives at ease.

When he arrives at a donor's bedside, it means their loved ones won't really see them again. Relatives must wait between 12 and 18 months to claim the ashes.

So Casso understands when family members offer him coffee - he's also been offered beer - and ask that he wait a few minutes. He accepts the coffee, but turns down beer, and gives families the time they need.

"Normally I just talk to the family. I like to get the family comfortable with me. Some people want to get to know you. They want to know the person who is taking their loved one away," he said.

In one case, Casso had no choice but to wait. The donor's Doberman rested next to its master's body. Casso waited until a neighbor showed up and led the dog away.

"They know. Dogs know," Casso said.

If any relative opposes the donation, Casso won't take the body. One gentleman requested that Casso return his wife's body. The husband had tried to honor his wife's wish to donate her body to science, but after a couple of months he wanted a grave to visit during the holidays and on the woman's birthday.

"You have to go with people's feelings because it's a difficult time for them," he said. "At the time of death you don't know how you're going to feel."

As for his own body, Casso is not sure what will happen when he dies.

"I haven't really decided if I'm going to donate my body to science," he said. "If it were in good shape, I wouldn't mind."