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Leveen Family Fund commits $400K to new MRI suite at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

by Mark Sullivan

It is safe to say that at Brenda Tilley's old job she never had to wrestle a 350-pound pig through a 23-inch hole. "Wow," muses the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technician at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. "I don't know how we fit that pig in there."

The Leveen Family Fund MRI Wing where Tilley works opened this past December as the most sophisticated in New England for the diagnosis of small and large animals. The wing is named for a charitable foundation, established by the late Brookline philanthropist and dog-fancier Hilda Leveen, which committed $400,000 to the facility.

"She wanted to help animals, particularly dogs," said Miss Leveen's attorney, Stephanie Meilman of Newton. "She really loved those Boston terriers." Miss Leveen, who left $3.5 million to charity at her death in 2000 at age 93, had a succession of the black-and-white terriers, each dog named Peter, after her father, who died in 1930, the lawyer recalled.

The 2,100-square-foot MRI suite that bears the Leveen family name has been built as an annex to the hospital complex at the Cummings School, with access for horses and other large animals through an entryway off the corridor of the Hospital for Large Animals.

"This gift to help fund the facility helps us keep costs down for clients and for our faculty involved in MRI research," said hospital director Dr. Steven Rowell. "Technology like MRI requires huge investments in the building, equipment, and personnel. Since each patient must be anesthetized, we cannot perform as many MRI scans a day as are done in human MRI facilities. We want to move our technology forward without driving costs beyond the capabilities of clients and researchers."

In the foyer of the MRI annex, a checked "stop" line prevents visitors from passing further before they have divested themselves of metal objects. The magnet in the MRI is strong enough to pull scissors or keys from your pocket. "Paperclips have a velocity of 40 miles an hour," Tilley said, with a smile, one recent morning as she showed a visitor about the facility. "Safety first: we're very big on safety."

In the MRI room, the patient is moved through the center of a doughnut-shaped magnet on a sliding table that acts as a conveyor. A special table newly made to accommodate large animals will enable a horse to undergo a leg scan. The facility was expected to serve its first horse this summer.

Scan images in three dimensions are captured on computer by a technician in the adjoining control room. The images can be rotated on the computer, allowing 3-D views of a spine or a brain or any organ.

On this day, a brain scan was scheduled on a six-week-old puppy. "We average two or three cases a day, five days a week," Tilley said. "Mainly we do dogs and cats. We've done bunny rabbits. We did a little bear cub once that had been found wandering in the woods. We've done a porcupine - that was very interesting! We wore big gloves to avoid the needles."

Her most challenging patient so far has been the pig. The 350-pound boar, rescued from a slaughterhouse and being kept as a pet, was brought in for a spine MRI. "He was huge, and he was only a year old," she said. "We had to come up with a way to scan him. We couldn't do it the normal way because he was so big." They ended up jury-rigging a system of pads on which the pig was successfully run through the magnet's center hole, 23 inches in diameter.

Tilley joined the staff at the Cummings School in December. Previously she did MRIs - of people - at Central Massachusetts Imaging in Worcester. How does this compare? "The technology's the same," she said. "It's more challenging to get images: an animal's spinal cord, for example, is so much smaller. You see a lot of really interesting cases. And the pets here are so cute. One of my favorite cases was a dog that walked over with his favorite stuffed animal in his mouth. The personalities on all the dogs and cats are so different."

That pets are being cared for so would have meant a lot to the benefactor whose family's name is above the door.

Dogs, particularly Boston terriers, were a love of Hilda Leveen's. She was the eighth of nine children in her family, none of whom had children of their own. "Her family had dogs," said attorney Nelson Costa, partner in the Newton law office of Meilman & Costa, which handled her affairs. "Family photos show no kids - and a lot of dogs."

Miss Leveen's was an accomplished - and unusual - family. Her parents were Jewish immigrants, her father, Peter, from Russia, her mother, Bertha, from Germany. The family lived in Chelsea and Somerville before settling in Brookline. Hilda, born in 1906, never married, and worked as a secretary in the financial industry. Her sister, Caroline, appointed to a judgeship on Nantucket by Gov. James Michael Curley, was the second women appointed to the bench in Massachusetts. Her brother, Percy, was a violinist with the Boston Symphony.

None of the six sisters or three brothers having children, Hilda Leveen was the last of the line when she passed away in 2000. She lived very frugally, checking the stock market daily to follow her investments, and when she died she left an estate of $3.5 million, which went to establish a charitable foundation, the Leveen Family Fund.

The fund was intended to benefit, among other causes, the welfare of animals. "She wanted to make sure people took care of their dogs," Meilman said. At the Leveen Family Fund MRI Wing, people will.