Jack Furnari was in a race against time, striving to learn everything he could about the brain cancer that was slowly killing him.
And the mission wasn't just about gaining knowledge. The fourth-year med student wanted to teach his classmates about the disease — and provide a firsthand example of ways patients might cope with it.
Furnari himself was the subject. That was the type of person he was.
He also wanted to pick up his medical degree with his colleagues, who over the years had blossomed into close friends, at the first commencement of Central Michigan University's
College of Medicine.
Furnari lost his battle Dec. 7, 2016. He was 29 years old and exactly five months short of commencement.
But the DeWitt man reached his goal. His family accepted a posthumous medical degree on his behalf when the college's inaugural class graduated May 7.
The degree isn't honorary. It's the real thing. CMU negotiated a few legal hoops to make it so.
"I think the degree is the least he deserves for everything he had done and everything he and his family had been through," said friend and College of Medicine classmate Ali Hachem.
"He was destined for a great, great future, and he was going to make a wonderful, passionate and very smart physician," Hachem said. "There was an aura about him. He made people feel good."
Furnari's mother, Tina Jerue, agreed.
"That's what Jack was all about," said Jerue, who received her son's degree May 7 from CMU President George E. Ross. "He loved to help people, and hopefully the new physicians will carry on that compassion to their patients."
'A great, great guy'
All who knew Furnari describe him as passionate about a lot of things.
He loved his family, and he loved to study. He also enjoyed golf, "Madden NFL," and Ben & Jerry's cookie dough ice cream — by the pint.
The ice cream struck a chord with Hachem, who roomed with Furnari during the second year of med school after striking up a friendship during the challenging first year.
"'Hey man, it feels like ice cream time,' one of us would say," Hachem recalled. "So we'd walk around the corner and pick up whatever was on sale.
"That's probably not something you'd want to hear a medical school student say," he quickly added with a small laugh.
But Furnari, a CMU alum, also appeared to be born for medical school. On exam days, the two would have "rapid-fire quiz sessions" in their apartment. About half the queries Furnari posed ended up on the test, Hachem said.
"He was really good at anticipating what was on those tests, he said. "He was very, very smart."
Housam Tahboub, another med school friend who, like Hachem, served as one of Furnari's pallbearers, said Furnari was "a great, great guy" who was nice to everyone.
"It didn't matter if you were his best friend or an acquaintance," Tahboub said.
Battling cancer and tackling med school
Jerue said her son was diagnosed with
glioblastoma — a highly aggressive brain cancer — in early 2015. Surgery followed April 20, and he underwent chemotherapy and radiation.
Then came the seizure. Furnari would have to relearn reading, writing, simple math, connecting words and walking more than a short distance.
Furnari and his mother spent six months in Texas while he tried to make it all happen. And he did.
He had qualified for an important board exam before he was diagnosed, but that was put on the shelf. The word and computation skills gradually came back, and Furnari began to study for the exam.
Furnari eventually took it while his mother waited in the parking lot. He passed the test.
"He could barely walk, and he sat through that entire exam," Jerue recalled. "It was just incredible."
By February 2016 he was back to off-campus field rotations. According to his mother, "he was just thrilled with hopes he could graduate with the rest of his class."
But the prognosis for gliobastoma is grim, and those with it rarely live for more than a few years. Even as the cancer's grip grew stronger, Furnari never complained, his mother said.
Living life to the fullest
Furnari's dedication and focus toward gaining his degree impressed Dr. George Kikano, dean of CMU's College of Medicine.
"He had an amazing heart, and he worked hard all the way to the end," Kikano said. "He knew he had a fatal illness, yet he was showing up for classes and took his boards.
"Jack never gave up."
Amy Kuechenmeister, a med school classmate and close friend who organized fundraising drives for Furnari and his family, said he never lost his sense of humor.
"He would always say, 'The chemo is going to take my beard away!'" she recalled, laughing. "We used to call him the bearded superman."
People also can make donations toward a Jack Furnari scholarship, she said. Donors can go to CMU's
"Giving" page and search for his name under "Step 1."
Like the others who graduated May 7, Kuechenmeister is happy to see Furnari get his degree.
"He certainly deserves it — more than anybody," she said. "It's something he earned, something he really deserves."
Kuechenmeister said Furnari's family also will receive a shadowbox containing the cap he would have worn at commencement — courtesy of his classmates.
"And he was right," she added. "The length of years you have doesn't matter; it's how you live the years you're given.
"He lived life to the fullest and made each day count."