Sep 12, 2008

Our Silent Mentor 1

I shall talk about the silent mentor (大體老師) in this post.
Medicine is a field of trial and error. Like so many other fields of knowledge, the current understanding of medicine is laid upon thousands of years of drug misuse, failed medication, and dead bodies. Sure, some extraordinary (or naively optimistic) trials got famed, and among these the penicillin won Alexander Fleming a Nobel prize.
The same goes for the field of anatomy. The human body had intrigued ourselves since time memorial, and thanks to curiosity as well as an abundance of cadavers the human body is completely mapped 300 years ago. England by chance a heaven of grave robbers since early times, was the center propelling human anatomy - during its prime students of medicine were known to openly steal cadavers to assist in their studies. Anatomy is not only limited to medicine alone - Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo also grave robbed to study the human structure for art.
Until the 80s cadavers for medicinal education are usually unidentified corpses collected from morgues in the country. Medical students dissect on cadavers without identity, and many have treated them without respect. Education promoting respect and appreciation for them are nonexistent. And after a complete dissection corpses will usually be discarded - nothing from the cadaver remembered except anatomical knowledges for the student.
Tzu Chi University is the first university in Taiwan, and perhaps all of Asia, to promote the Silent Mentor program - where cadavers are donated from the public. One get to sign up voluntarily to become a silent mentor, and after one's death the body will be preserved until it is dissected by students. Among some differences between the silent mentor and the normal cadavers are:
  1. Medical students get to know the deceased through family visits - during the visit students will be introduced to a person who is willing to sacrifice his / her body for laying the basal foundation of a doctor. Besides understanding the reason behind this noble cause, students start to see a cadaver as a 'person' - who prior to death, a significant being with love and feelings - a father, a grandmother, a daughter.
  2. All silent mentors are identifiable and legally obtained - willingly donated.
  3. Silent mentors are respectfully preserved (individually sealed) - some schools simply leave cadavers in a pool of formalin until dissection time.
  4. Upon completion of dissection, the silent mentor will be suturized and respectfully incinerated in a day-long ceremony with prescence of family members and close friends.
  5. Ashes of the cadaver will be kept in a memorium.
The direct result of the silent mentor program is a close and intimate bond between the student and their silent mentor. Students were always awed by the spirit of sacrifice showed by the deceased - in traditional Chinese, or perhaps Asian culture it is only culturally appropriate to die with a complete body. By sacrificing a 'complete' death, our silent mentors brought us into the realm of medicine - allowing us to cut, probe, feel every inch of her body after her death, she intuited in us a strong foundation of medicine as well as the respectful etiquette of seeing a deceased as a being.
Some silent mentors left words before passing, they usually sound:
  • "I would be happy to suffer a hundred mistaken cuts on me than to have the future doctor make a mistaken cut on a living patient."
  • "When you start dissecting my body, its the time I will truly rest in peace for I had fulfiled a noble cause."
  • From a 9-year old mentor "I am too young to contribute to society (she was diagnosed with leukemia at an extremely young age). The only thing I could contribute is my body upon my death."
  • From my mentor "If I am buried, the rotting will hurt; if I am incinerated, the burning would hurt; if I am dissected, it would hurt as well but this is a contributive pain, a necessary sacrifice."
With such noble and willing silent mentors it is no wonder that anatomy and dissection of TCU is held among the highest regard in the school. It is the reason we all look forward to the semester despite the mountains of knowledge and fatigue it comes with.
I would tell more about our silent mentor, a 61-year old lady, Mdm. Lee, in my next post.