The Silent Mentor Programme is a programme hosted by the University of Malaya (UM) in which members of the public may pledge their bodies to be used for medical training and research after their death. Medical students participating in this programme are expected to be present for both a home visit to the mentor’s family and a week-long training workshop in UM. Participants are taught to perform procedures such as suturing, chest tube insertion, endotracheal intubation, and central line insertion, as well as guided step-by- step through more advanced surgical techniques such as appendicectomy, hernia repair, Pfannenstiel incision, explorative laparotomy, and orthopaedic plating. 10 IMU medical students at various stages of training attended the 22nd edition of this programme, held on 15 – 22 April 2018.
My interest in the Silent Mentor Programme was initially sparked by the promise of an opportunity to practise invasive procedures on a cadaver, thus bypassing the usual dilemma between patient safety and training needs. That we would be able to practise and make mistakes on a dead unfeeling body rather than harm a living patient is inevitably the main wish of each mentor who signed up for this programme. In this aspect, I believe all our silent mentors have accomplished their objectives, as we came away from the course with a greater understanding of the various surgical procedures. However, what struck me the most was its focus on understanding who the silent mentor was as a person when he/she was still alive. This was unique in that it strove to maintain the emphasis on humanity and compassion, attributes which are not usually addressed in cadaver-related workshops. It served as a reminder that the bodies laid in front of us were once fellow humans with their own identities, lives, aspirations, relationships, and challenges. This notion immediately ensured that the bodies of our silent mentors were treated with utmost respect and care. In fact, all participants were instructed to treat the bodies as if they were still alive, to simulate the atmosphere of an actual operating theatre.
Unexpectedly, as events of the workshop unfolded, I found myself pondering: what constitutes a meaningful life? It is said that death is the greatest equaliser, stripping away all ranks, statuses, wealth, and power. Nevertheless, the one thing that death cannot erase is the impact a person leaves behind, for better or for worse. Across the four mentors, I bore witness to the impact they left on their family and friends. One was a family man who constantly looked out for his parents, siblings, wife, and son. Another was a significant contributor to the development of Chinese-medium education and educational institutions. The third was a Tzu Chi volunteer who devoted her life to serving the underprivileged. My mentor was someone who preferred the company of friends over his own family’s, though his daughter in her eulogy nevertheless appreciated him for holding the family together and being the sole breadwinner. During conversations with family members and friends of the mentors, it became apparent that the contributions to the people around them and society in general were what really mattered. These contributions continue to live on as part of the deceased’s legacies.
Regardless of impact on the society during their lives, all mentors similarly decided to make one last gift to the education of medical professionals and betterment of healthcare standards upon their demise. This noble act of giving makes them educators in their own right, and highlighted the importance of volunteerism in our society. In fact, through interactions with Mr Sia (Silent Mentor Programme manager) and Mr Mok (volunteer home visit supervisor), I was impressed to find out that a significant portion of the programme was run by volunteers with the financial support of various corporate sponsors; this enabled us undergraduate participants to attend the programme without a registration fee.
Even more remarkable was the support of the mentors’ families. Because of this programme, some families had to delay funeral proceedings by slightly more than 3 months, unable to obtain closure before the programme’s completion. Each probing question to further understand our mentors was also an intrusion of their privacy during their period of grieving, though family members still shared their fondest memories of the mentors freely. This selfless generosity has inspired me to develop into a competent doctor with the passion to serve my patients to the best of my abilities.
Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. 前人栽树，后人乘凉。Perhaps this is the true lesson to be drawn from the Silent Mentor Programme – that to lead a meaningful and purposeful life is to continually serve and strive for the advancement of the society around us. Written by Goh Zhong Ning Leonard (ME1/13) – IMU Medical Student Photos courtesy of Silent Mentor Centre and Steven Toh (ME2/16) More on the Silent Mentor programme: Where the dead are mentors (Star, 4 March 2018) Silent Mentor Program: A Humanistic Approach to Medical Training (Asia Research News, 4 July 2017)