Oregon patients will soon be able to receive their amputated body parts for cultural, spiritual reasons

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
Aug. 22, 2023 1 p.m.
The outside of the St. Charles Health System campus in Bend on July 26, 2022. A new law spearheaded by St. Charles Health System and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs allows health facilities to return amputated body parts to patients for cultural and spiritual reasons.

The outside of the St. Charles Health System campus in Bend on July 26, 2022. A new law spearheaded by St. Charles Health System and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs allows health facilities to return amputated body parts to patients for cultural and spiritual reasons.

Joni Land / OPB

A new Oregon law will soon allow health care facilities to return amputated body parts to patients for cultural, spiritual or religious reasons.

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SB 189 was spearheaded by St. Charles Health System and leaders of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. For some members of the tribes, keeping a person’s body together is necessary for a smooth transition to the spirit world.

“In our spirituality, one of our sayings is ‘one body, one mind,’” said Warm Springs spiritual leader and oral historian Wilson Wewa. “When there’s amputation, most of our tribal members know that we need to be whole at the time of our leaving this world to the next.”

Previous state law made returning body parts either difficult or impossible. At St. Charles, body parts could be blessed and cremated, with the remains returned to the patient.

But Wewa said cremated remains wouldn’t suffice for some patients, leading them to turn down life-saving procedures.

“It has led to, unfortunately, the death of some of our people because they’ve chosen not to get an amputation… which meant our community, the family of the deceased, had to live with that trauma of losing their loved one,” Wewa said.

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Shilo Tippett, a Warm Springs tribal member and manager of caregiver inclusion and experience at St. Charles, said the health system interviewed nearly 80 tribal members last year to get their thoughts on how state law should change.

“The overall picture that we got from community members was that, ‘We should have our amputated body parts back. That’s the way it was before Oregon law, those are our traditions and customs,’” Tippett said.

From there, St. Charles leaders consulted with the Warm Springs Tribal Council, as well as other tribes around the state, to shape legislation. Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek signed the bill in July, and it’s set to take effect in September.

Tippett said the new law is not only important to tribal members, but also to surgeons, lab workers and other health care providers at St. Charles.

“They have not felt that it’s right, morally, that they haven’t been able to return an amputated body part to someone who holds such a significant spiritual belief,” she said. “There’s a lot of celebration and excitement that finally something that has been important to so many people is achievable.”

Wewa said he hopes the law will set a precedent for how health care facilities can respond to the cultural and spiritual needs of the communities they serve.

“Many times, laws are made by people that have never had to deal with this type of a trauma within their own family or within their own culture,” he said. “This is something that is long overdue, and I think it’s going to pave the way — if we do it right — to a better understanding between the patient and the health care system.”

Shilo Tippett and Wilson Wewa spoke to “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller. Click play to listen to the full conversation:

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