Donating your body to medical training
THERE are several ways you can continue contributing to society after you have departed this Earth. One good way is by donating your organs. Another way is to donate your body to the Silent Mentor programme.
Explaining how the programme began, surgeon and lecturer Prof Dr Chin Kin Fah says it all started when he returned from Britain. He was then working as a consultant at UMMC (University Malaya Medical Centre), specialising in minimally invasive surgery.
“I was told then that not a lot of surgeons knew how to do keyhole surgery. So, I set up workshops to train junior surgeons how to do this very specific advanced surgery in 2001.
“I looked at what was the best way to teach them how to operate. We looked at animals and at computerised programs and I also looked at cadaveric courses.
“An operation requires a lot of steps. Using animals is not the same, while practising on a real patient has risks. If anything goes wrong, you could end up with major complication or a disaster.
“But on a fresh cadaver you can perform the steps as many times as you want and still be able to appreciate the tissue, anatomy and blood vessels. It can even cause bleeding if you are not careful. So, it’s as real as it gets in terms of a training model,” he says.
Realising that this was the best option, he started sourcing for unclaimed bodies – people who had died and whose bodies were not claimed by family members.
The Silent Mentor programme then ran two very successful international cadaveric courses with professors from Korea, Australia, UK and other countries attending as faculty members.
The response was very good.
While this worked for a while, the concept did not sit well with Prof Dr Chin, as there was no consent from the “donor” or his or her family.
He also felt that the trainee doctors were missing out on an important lesson – getting the consent of the patient and speaking to the family. This human connection was missing and it is a very important aspect of the training.
So, he closed that programme.
Some years later, he was introduced to the idea of body donation at Tzu Chi University in Taiwan.
This model gets the donor and their family to sign consent forms in advance.
Inspired by the concept, he decided to start a similar programme in Malaysia. The programme began in 2012 in UMMC.
Since then, Prof Dr Chin has left UMMC. He is now lecturing at Utar (Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman) and has his clinical practice in Gleneagles Hospital and Sungai Long Medical Centre.
The Silent Mentor Programme is now a multi-university initiated programme that can benefit students in the whole country.
Currently, Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Universiti Putra Malaysia, Inti, Monash, International Medical University and some foreign universities have joined the programme.
Recently, the Silent Mentor Foundation Malaysia was founded and a training centre was set up at the Xiao-En bereavement care centre in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur.
How it works
If anyone is interested to pledge their bodies to the Silent Mentor programme, they would need to sign a consent form to pledge and donate their whole body after death and with the support of their family members.
Should any family members object, the body will not be accepted by the programme.
If the pledger finds that his or her family has doubts, the Foundation would talk to them and explain the programme.
“It gives the donors a chance to talk with their family about their wishes after death. This way, their affairs are sorted out, in a sense. It’s a good way to start the discussion on death, a tough topic for most Malaysian families,” says Prof Dr Chin.
According to him, the decision to pledge and donate the body can only be made by the person himself. Family members cannot decide to donate the body after a person’s death.
“When I started this programme, it was purely a model that allowed us to teach the students in terms of skill sets, to bring out their medical skills, which is no doubt important. But I realised there is a lot more to teach – medical ethics, how to respect and look after your patients and how to communicate with their family members, and how to get to know the family members as well,” says Prof Dr Chin, who believes this is an important aspect of being a doctor.
Hence, the programme today not only offers hands-on training for medical students. It also offers students a chance to talk to pledgers and their families.
Two groups of students benefit from the Silent Mentor programme – the ones who sign up for the programme and those who attend the workshops.
Those who sign up for the programme will have to make home visits and find out more about the pledgers and their families and take time to communciate with them.
Prof Dr Chin informs that it also teaches empathy, which will help them build a bridge to patients and their families so that they will put their trust in the doctors.
“That kind of skill set can’t be learned from text books and computer programs,” he says.
The other group that would benefit is the one that attends the workshops, which would go on for about four days and involve hands-on surgical simulation.
Depending on the condition of the body and the types of diseases that the silent mentor had, Prof Dr Chin would decide what types of workshops and surgical simulations would be suitable.
The workshops are typically attended not only by medical students, but also practising doctors from Malaysia and other countries.
Because the programme runs by donation of bodies, Prof Dr Chin would be able to introduce the silent mentor by name and share with his students a bit of background on the person, what he or she did for a living and what diseases they suffered from.
This way, the students would have some medical background on the cadavers they are operating on and a name. The cadavers would not be just a “tool” for learning.
After a pledger dies, there is a religious ceremony before the body is handed over to the Silent Mentor Foundation Malaysia. The Foundation would ensure that students are always respectful towards the body and the donor’s family. There is even a gratitude ceremony.
The Foundation would then run the Silent Mentor workshops over about four days.
After the four days of workshops, the cadaver would then be prepared for cremation.
Now that the Foundation is working in partnership with the Xiao-En bereavement care centre, the staff from Xiao-En would help the students prepare the body for cremation.
There is also a respectful send-off ceremony followed by a private cremation.
Prof Dr Chin informs that since the launch, there have been more than 600 pledges and 40 silent mentors. The youngest pledger was just 18 years old.
“The programme has been quite successful. We have had good response, much better than we imagined,” he says.
Prof Dr Chin, whose area of interest is laparoscopic minimally invasive surgery, says that most of the silent mentors were his patients.
With similar programmes available in Thailand, the US and UK, most people hear about the Silent Mentor programme through the media, the Internet and word of mouth.
The Silent Mentor Foundation Malaysia also conducts talks to inform the public about the programme.
To find out more, go to http://www.silentmentor.org/ or call 019-282-6608 or 019-207-8970.