To become doctors, medical students must learn the anatomy of the human body to appreciate the abnormal and the pathological processes that can affect the body. Formalin- soaked embalmed bodies were used to facilitate the learning process in the past. They were either donated by individuals or were unclaimed bodies from hospitals. Sometimes their identities were unknown. Today, there are many more ways to learn about the body structure such as the electronic books on the human anatomy and the computerized simulation models. Learning process through these aids are not the same as the priceless experience gained from the human body.
Medical training involves acquiring skills in basic procedures for either therapeutic or investigative purpose. The opportunity to assist or perform these procedures under guidance may not be readily available especially in countries where there are large numbers of medical students to be trained with limited number of qualified doctors and surgeons to provide the training. Although plastic models and mannequins, and simulation models are available for skill training, they are expensive to acquire and maintain, and may not be affordable to many teaching institutions.
The practice of body donation for medical training and research is not new. Many medical institutions around the world have arrangements for the sick and the healthy to pledge their bodies upon their deaths, for medical students or junior doctors to learn and improve their clinical skills. Often, body parts preserved by freezing are imported from abroad for clinical subspecialty training or surgical workshops. These are expensive and may be from unknown sources, thus not having much information about the “donor” or the origin of the specimens.
At the dawn of the new millennium, about fifteen years ago, Dharma Master Cheng Yen from Taiwan initiated the concept of “Silent Mentor” in Taiwan. She said that “the greatest suffering in life is illness, and if doctors can save more lives by learning from our donated bodies, that would be of great worth”. The difference between the general body donation programs and the Silent Mentor body donation is that with the latter, students and doctors would get to know their mentors. Information on the mentor would be compiled and presented to all by a group of medical students, gleaned from home visits and interviews.
Clinical skill training workshops were subsequently started in Tzu Chi University with her patronage. Many medical students and doctors benefitted from the program ever since. In 2012, the University of Malaya initiated the Silent Mentor Program with the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the University of Malaya and the Tzu Chi University from Taiwan on 23rd March 2012.
Over the last six years, 18 programs have been organized, benefiting more than 700 medical students and 1,600 medical doctors and specialists, both local and from abroad. Medical students from the University Malaya who participate in the program will receive the donated bodies and participate in the cleaning and the preparation for freezing at -18 degrees Celsius. From that day, the students will address their donors as “Mentors”, from whom they would learn. About one month before the scheduled workshops, there will be a home visit where the students meet with the relatives and the close friends of their mentors to better understand the life history of their selfless teachers
Three days before the workshops, the medical students will bring their assigned mentors out of the freezer to the anatomy dissection hall for thawing. Before the commencement of the workshops, there will be a session where students will meet up with the family members with a short presentations from their home visits. There will also be an initiation ceremony for family members to view the mentors. During the four days of the workshops, there will be three professional surgical workshops for surgeons and clinical specialists, and one basic procedural workshop for hospital doctors and house officers. The workshop for medical students will be conducted in the evening and is focused on the practice of life-saving emergency procedures with clinical anatomy demonstrations. The final session will be a ceremony of gratitude and a sendoff, which is open to the public. The family members, friends and those who are interested to know more about the program will be briefed through slide presentations of all the silent mentors with a summary of all the learning or training activities over the four days, and messages of appreciation from representatives of medical students, doctors and specialists who have benefited from the sessions.
One of the important aims of the Silent Mentor Program (SMP) is to cultivate a sense of compassion in our medical students towards their future patients. We teach our next generation of doctors to treat the human body with utmost respect and gentleness, to be humane when giving care to patients and to communicate with their relatives with empathy. Having a pure and sincere heart is part of the treatment the patient needs and deserves. We hope that the experience will help to inspire the students to become competent and compassionate doctors. We hope that students who were involved will appreciate the fact that there are patients who are willing to help them become better doctors without expecting anything in return. Our plan is to let all medical students from the University of Malaya have the opportunity to participate in the program. We have also accepted medical students from the various local and even the international medical institutions.
We would like to thank SMP team members; the academic staff from University Malaya, the volunteer teaching Faculty members from the private sector and the UM alumni, and the professors from UM1 Myanmar for putting their heart and soul to organize the event, their willingness to teach our students and also the many companies who support us. Our heartfelt thanks to all the family and friends of our selfless Silent Mentors, for their support in fulfilling the final wishes of our selfless mentors, to contribute towards better compassionate care all over the world. We do believe that this Silent Mentor Program will benefit the many students and doctors from different countries, in compassionately saving patients, in a borderless world. We believe that University of Malaya will continue to contribute towards the training of quality medical and health practitioners for the country and the region, with the strong support of the generous, selfless donors and their community.
Acknowledgement: We would like to thank Mr Sia Thiam Eng for providing the photographs, and our deepest gratitude to Professor Gracie Ong for her editing the article.
1. Professor Dr Saw Aik,
Director of Silent Mentor Program, Faculty of Medicine,
University Malaya, 50603 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
2. Associate Professor Dr Si Lay Khaing,
Deputy Director of Silent Mentor Program, Faculty of Medicine,
University Malaya, 50603 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia