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UH Medical School Resumes Willed Body Program After Pandemic Pause

John A. Burns School of Medicine

The coronavirus pandemic forced the University of Hawaii’s medical school to pause its Willed Body Program, which accepts human body donations for research and education. But with the return of in-person classes, the school has resumed its donation program.

Steven Labrash has been head of the donation program at the John A. Burns School of Medicine since 2004.

“When we’re introducing the students to their silent teachers in lab, we’ll use the term teacher or silent teacher or mentor,” Labrash said. "It's the foundation of a relationship that is going to stay with these students forever."

First-year medical students can spend over 100 hours dissecting and learning from, in a way, their very first patient. Surgical residents and practicing surgeons adding to their medical knowledge also learn from these silent teachers, he said.

When students are finished learning, the program holds an annual memorial service where the cremated silent teachers are spread into the ocean. Family members of the donors are also invited to honor their loved ones and meet the students in person, though that was also paused during the pandemic.

Credit John A. Burns School of Medicine
The cremains of the honorees from the 2020 and 2021 services were scattered at sea in a private ceremony in accordance with their wishes.

As for the donation details, silent teachers generally pledge their donation prior to death.

In fact, Labrash said the program prefers donations pledged before death, opposed to a family choosing to donate their family member.

“We don’t want to be in the gray area. We want to be 100% sure all the time,” he said. “Currently we’re not accepting any post-mortem donations.”

Medical education and research times average between two and 18 months, though most bodies are cremated and returned within 12 months of donation, according to the program's information page.

Interested donors can complete a form to donate their bodies upon death. The program has the right to reject donations, but over 99.5% of registered donors are accepted into the program.

The program also cannot accept a body donation if it is presumed or confirmed positive for COVID-19 at the time of death.

Those on the neighboring islands do have to pay for preparation and transportation costs to Honolulu Airport where the program will then collect the body. Labrash acknowledged the costs can be prohibitive.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at
Sophia McCullough is HPR's digital news producer. Contact her at
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