By Moses Magadza
WINDHOEK -The School of Medicine at the University of Namibia is now able to offer the full module on human anatomy after it got a donation of cadavers (human bodies) that the school’s trainee doctors will need for their studies of the structure of the human body.
Namibia opened its first ever School of Medicine last year with 54 students and they were scheduled to embark on dissection during the second semester of last year but this was deferred to this year because the school had neither the legal authority to work on human remains nor the facilities in which to do so, according to the head of the Department of Anatomy, Professor Willie Vorster, who added that the school did not have the cadavers as well.
Founding Dean of the School of Medicine, Professor Peter Nyarango said given the inability of the school to secure and embalm its own cadavers locally given time constraints, it became necessary to approach “an established Department of Anatomy of a sister university in a neighboring country to assist”.
Last week the said unidentified University obliged, giving the UNAM School of Medicine 10 cadavers, five of them female. Nyarango said the donation followed delicate and lengthy procedures to allow, firstly, the students to handle human tissues in Namibia and, secondly, to facilitate the importation of the cadavers.
Vorster said the Namibian Government had – through relevant legal instruments - since given the School of Medicine permission to utilize human skeletal material and human tissue for teaching, training and research.
“We are going to prepare our own cadavers from now on,” he said.
All over the world, the procurement of cadavers for the purposes of teaching and training has been fraught with controversy from about the 15th Century when interest in human anatomy grew. Stories – some macabre and others outright hilarious – abound of medical schools and amateur anatomists fighting like cats over the carcasses of condemned criminals who would have been hanged or of unclaimed poor people and of grave robbers raiding graveyards for bodies that would then be sold to medical schools.
In modern times and with the enactment of legislation tightly regulating the use of human remains for the advancement of science, medical schools have been getting cadavers through three ways, according to Nyarango.
“Firstly, in some instances individuals donate their bodies to medical schools before they die and reflect that in their wills. Secondly, unclaimed bodies can be made available to schools although this requires lengthy legal procedures,” he said.
Although few, there are some communities in Africa that still do not bury their dead. This is common among mobile communities such as pastoral nomads, who abandon their dead or dying in forests where they just turn into buffets for scavengers such as hyenas and vultures.
Vorster said donated bodies are the preferred source of cadavers and said his department was considering a public awareness campaign to encourage Namibians to donate their bodies to the advancement of knowledge. All over the world, this is the main source of cadavers
“That is the way to go. At some universities there are waiting lists of people willing to donate their organs and bodies. If you are young and healthy and you die in an accident, your organs can be donated if they can be used for organ transfer. If you die of old age your heart may be of little or no use to a 20-year-old but your body can still be studied.”
Introducing medical students to cadavers can be a delicate process and in some countries some students have been so terrified that they have scampered off and changed courses. Vorster said a lot had been done to prepare Namibian trainee doctors for their first encounter with cadavers.
“There have been a lot of academic studies on this because for a lot of students that is their first time of seeing dead bodies. We have a whole programme to prepare them and we will bring in a minister of religion to talk to them about death and respect for the person who has donated the body. We have given them reading material and have ensured that they will work on cadavers in groups of six,” he said.
Random interviews with some of the medical students confirmed that they had indeed been prepared for this eventuality and were awaiting their first experience in dissection with varying levels of enthusiasm.
Mr. Tjamena Murangi (19) said: “I am mentally prepared. This will be the real thing as we will be dealing with the real human body.”
Mr. Pascal Walters (24) said he could not wait to begin learning about the human body through dissection.
“I am very excited. We have been dealing with theory. This is practical and will make us better doctors,” Walters said.
Ms. Lamascha Louw (20) said: “I feel scared. I have never been near a dead body and I don’t know what my reaction will be.”
Ms. Alison Ferreira (21), said dealing with cadavers was part of the training and she would just take it in her stride.
“I am ready for it,” she said.