Not every dental school offers hands-on learning in gross anatomy lab, but Texas A&M College of Dentistry’s distinctive program is stronger than ever.
“You hear it every year from students—you learn so much more by working with the human body rather than reading it in a book,” says Dr. Matthew Kesterke, instructional assistant professor in biomedical sciences.
The school’s Anatomical Gift Program has seen a “huge uptick in donations” recently, becoming a self-sufficient donor network for the first time in memorable history. Kesterke says that means the school saves “thousands of dollars per student to maintain dissection as a learning tool.” He credits director Charlie Fulton’s all-in commitment, consummate knowledge and novel outreach efforts for putting the program on solid footing.
Being available around the clock is perhaps what’s made all the difference, Fulton says. Thirty years as a funeral director prepared him for this role, and he treats this job just like any other he’s ever had.
“I personally answer the phones 24/7,” says Fulton, who also manages the school’s gross anatomy lab. It’s not unusual for the phone to ring at 2 a.m., or what he calls “the magic witching hour,” dubbed by the funeral industry because it is a typical time of death.
“You’re not leaving a message, you’re not paging a pager, and you’re not waiting for someone to call you back,” he says. “In the past, I believe, that was happening and people were giving up and calling somebody else.”
Fulton also spends many weekends visiting area health fairs for seniors, including a recent drive-thru event in Palestine, Texas. As always, he handed out a newly designed informational brochure with maroon bluebonnets on the front and his business card stapled to the back. He also gave attendees a small tube of toothpaste and an A&M-branded toothbrush.
“It’s a double benefit,” he says. “It promotes the school for dental work and gives them information for the program.” Fulton says he renamed the program from the Willed Body Program to make it more palatable.
Besides furthering dental students’ education and supporting dental research, donors save on astronomical funeral costs, too. With that in mind, Fulton has placed brochures in patient reception areas with a “Don’t pay for a high-price funeral” sign. That actually caught one visitor’s attention, he says, and they made a beeline to Fulton’s office and signed up that day.
“The average funeral in Texas is $12,000. Here in Dallas, it’s going to cost $30,000; minimum $10,000 just to walk in the door. Our program does everything for free. There’s no charge to the family for anything as long as the death occurs within a 250-mile radius of the school,” he says.
Fulton works closely with the Texas State Anatomical Board, which regulates the process and works with member schools. Both Fulton and Kesterke always keep in mind that treating donors and their families with the utmost respect is first priority.
“It’s the ultimate gift that they’re giving to the school and giving back to society,” Fulton says. “They’re giving students the opportunity to learn, and we’re taking care of their families, just like a funeral home would.”
That process starts when an outside service delivers donated bodies to the Dallas Institute of Funeral Service, where students are learning to embalm. Once willed bodies arrive at the dental school, each one is carefully numbered and cataloged so only Fulton and Kesterke know the identity.
“What if you were a dental student here, and your uncle or somebody donated their body to science and you didn’t know it?” Fulton says. “So that’s the reason there are no names on them and they go by numbers. We make sure everything is done perfectly.”
Anyone who died in a car accident or of an infectious disease can’t be accepted into the program, the latter because “students are exposed to too much tissue to do that,” he says.
Donor families are notified that their loved one will stay at the school for 18 to 24 months. Besides teaching use, cadavers serve research purposes, including a recent study on treating root canals through the nasal cavity. Doctors from Baylor University Medical Center also are able to perfect new surgery techniques, Fulton says.
Kesterke says “the ethical use of cadaver patient-donors is always paramount on my mind. We utilize them as much as we can, because it is a pretty big sacrifice. So we try to get the most out of it, both education and research. That’s what the family wants.”
Families can then pick up cremated remains or ask the school to scatter their loved one’s ashes in a designated East Texas cemetery.
“Most families want it back,” Fulton says. “If they’re local, I deliver them. I wear a suit and tie just like a funeral director would, and I deliver them.”
Fulton recently started honoring military veterans with a ceremony at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, complete with military honors. The last one was in fall 2019; another scheduled for spring 2020 was postponed because of COVID-19. It will be rescheduled.