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Managing Body Donations Can Be Quite the Undertaking

Many people hope to leave a lasting legacy after they pass away through their family, their careers, or philanthropy. For some, a way to contribute long after their life has ended is through body donation. Unlike organ donation, which provides organs to a living a recipient in need of a transplant, people who elect to donate their bodies do so in the name of science—giving their entire body to a medical school or research institution.

For those who donate their bodies to the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, the first person to receive this generous gift isn’t a researcher or medical student, it’s Dwayne Hallman, manager of PSOM’s morgue, who prepares the donations for students and researchers.

It’s all part of the process the goes into body donation for medical education purposes. In Pennsylvania, this process is managed by the Humanity Gifts Registry (HGR), a non-profit agency that oversees the receipt and distribution of bodies donated to all medical and dental schools in the state.  Donors can fill out a simple form online and after getting signatures from two witnesses, their gift will become an essential part of future medical research and education.

While the thought of working around dead bodies all day might seem a bit unnerving to most people, it’s business as usual for Hallman. Instead of cubicles and conference rooms, Hallman’s domain is in the basement of Stemmler Hall, also known as the morgue. There, he cleans and embalms cadavers and preserves other body parts, including appendages and even brains, all in the name of education and research.

For Hallman, working in Penn’s morgue isn’t only a job, it’s a career – one that he has had a passion for since childhood.

“I knew from a young age that I wanted to go into the funeral service industry,” Hallman said. “Very dear friends of my parents owned and lived in a funeral home in our neighborhood. I spent a lot of time playing at their house when I was younger and as a teenager, my first job was working at that funeral home.”

Since his days as a teenager cutting grass, washing cars, and sometimes even driving a limo or hearse for the local funeral home, Hallman became a licensed funeral director, working in a funeral home for more than 10 years before joining Penn in 1987. Since then, Hallman has essentially been a one-man operation,  helping ensure that medical students, dental students, and researchers are able to pursue important research and education endeavors.

Each year, Penn needs an average of 80 to 100 new cadavers for teaching and medical research, which, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, is on par with the number of bodies an average funeral home receives each year (typically with a team of people to manage the process). But Hallman usually works alone, overseeing the entire embalming process—from head to toe. Embalming can take several hours per body, depending on the condition, size, weight, cause of death, and age.

“We are just as unique after we have passed away as when we were alive. Every cadaver is different and has a different story to tell,” Hallman said.

The majority of bodies donated to Penn are used in gross anatomy for first-year medical and dental students, but others might be designated for third- and fourth-year medical student or resident education, or for other research purposes depending on its condition and research needs across the university.

A familiar presence for Penn students and course instructors, Hallman checks in during anatomy lab and other classes to help make sure the cadavers are being properly handled and to be a resource for the students. Each body donated to Penn, either by request of the donor or through the system designed by HGR, is respected and well cared for, by Hallman and by the students.

“The students truly respect and appreciate this important donation made not only for their own education but for the advancement of medical science in general,” Hallman said. “I’ve often found notes or poems from students with the cadavers at the end of the semester, expressing their profound appreciation and respect.”

Students from all the medical and dental schools in Philadelphia have the chance express their gratitude each year during HGR’s annual Celebration of Remembrance. The ceremony is led by the students, who honor those who contributed so greatly to their medical education through poems, songs, and eulogies.  And while the students might not have known what these donors were like when they were alive, their impact on each student as their first patient and most influential teacher will live on throughout their medical careers.

“You taught me more than I could ever learn from a textbook or a lecture,” said Ali Qadri of Temple University during his eulogy speech.

As students read the each of the 278 donor names aloud, the audience also reflected the contribution made by their loved ones. Through their gift, donors will impact the lives of thousands of people, many whom many not even be born yet, by helping to advance science and research. 

“Most people who donate their bodies do it because they want to help students or to help find a cure, sometimes for the disease that killed them. Others have either worked in the medical profession or have family members who worked in this field and want to give back,” Hallman said.

Gross anatomy takes place every fall from September through December, so Hallman will spend the next several months preparing donations to be used for PSOM’s incoming class of first-year medical students, beginning the circle of education and remembrance all over again. 

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Views expressed are those of the author or other attributed individual and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the related Department(s), University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine), or the University of Pennsylvania, unless explicitly stated with the authority to do so.

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