'Faces affect me more, especially if the eyes are open': The woman who draws dead people for a living

'Faces affect me more, especially if the eyes are open': The woman who draws dead people for a living

Bay Song Lin’s subjects may be dead but they live on through her work, which is used to help train medical professionals.

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Even without medical training, these Silent Mentors in death - and the woman who preserves their legacy - are making an invaluable contribution to the grooming of future doctors.

SINGAPORE: Bay Song Lin is an artist whose subjects are somewhat unusual. Her work does not capture scenic landscapes, beautiful views or lovely sunsets.

Instead, she works with the body parts of the dead.

“The faces will affect me more, especially if the eyes are open,” said Song Lin as she guided CNA through the only Anatomy Museum in Singapore.

The 5,520 sq ft museum in the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine holds around 400 body parts displayed in clear acrylic jars.

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Cross-section of a face.

Since 1983, this is where aspiring doctors have come to learn the workings of the human body. Samples of every body part are stored here, kept in pristine condition to help students understand textbook theories.

“This is one whole body, dissected,” she said as she walked over to a row of rectangular plates.

Gently lifting up one and placing it on a metal stand, she started to identify various parts in the greyish mass of the cross-section.

“This one, that’s the lung over here. This one is the heart,” said Song Lin with the easy familiarity of a museum curator who has spent a lifetime getting to know the objects on display.

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The cross-section of a once-living human body.

She picked up another plate.

“This is the rectum. This is the thigh, the lower limb and this is the bone.”

While she seems to have a medical expert’s familiarity with the anatomy of the human body, Song Lin is not a doctor by training. The 50-year-old works as a medical illustrator.

However, as well as creating images of body parts, she also has to make sure that every specimen in the museum is well-preserved by checking the levels of preserving solution in every jar. If it falls too low, the tissue will start to rot and decay.

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Song Lin checks the level of formaldehyde in each jar as they drop in volume over time.

Even though she has spent 17 years working here, the humanity behind the specimens still has the power to shake her emotionally.

“This one affects me the most, because it is a full-grown baby,” she said suddenly, stopping in front of a preserved foetus. 

“It could have survived and grown, just like anyone of us, but it didn’t make it and this little fella ended up here ... dissected for the students to study the spine, the brain.”

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A preserved foetus with its spine exposed.

“You can see how the structure grows. A lot of details,” added Song Lin as her fingers trailed along the jar that the foetus is suspended in.

"Everything here is art."

ILLUSTRATING THE HUMAN BODY

Outside of the museum, most of Song Lin’s time is dedicated to creating detailed pictures of the human anatomy. Whenever professors require teaching material for a class, they will go to Song Lin to commission a new artwork.

“Let’s say the professor finds something interesting, he will instruct me to take photos of the specimens,” said Song Lin.

Armed with a camera and tripod, she headed down to the room where dissection classes were taking place.

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The Anatomy Hall.

Hanging heavy in the air inside was the pungent smell of the formaldehyde used to preserve the silent mentors - a term coined for the people who willingly donate their bodies for medical research and teaching. 

“This heart was just taken out from one of the silent mentors,” Song Lin said as she carefully placed the organ on a rotating platform.

“I’m taking photos of the heart in 360 degrees, about 15 degrees apart, so that after that I can combine them into a video.”

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Song Lin documenting a heart which had a triple bypass.
 

The reason for documenting this heart was that it had three bypasses - something that has not been seen before in dissection classes here, according to Associate Professor Ng Yee Kong, who was overseeing the session.

“When they (the students) took the heart from the thoracic cavity, we were so surprised to see a very nicely done triple bypass,” said Dr Ng. “We have taught them so much, but we have not seen one heart with a bypass. 

“The best sort of alternative is to archive this in a 3D (video), which Song Lin helps to capture, so that we can share it with our future students.”

Video is not the only medium in which Song Lin works.

Using Adobe Flash and Photoshop, she creates still and moving graphics of body parts.

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One of Song Lin's interactive animations.

Sometimes, a graphic can be more useful in the teaching process compared with a photograph or video, Song Lin said: “After dissecting, the specimens that you see are all very similar in colour. Very often, the students are not able to identify which is the artery and the vein.

“That’s why if I draw them into illustrations or animations, they are able to understand the form and relations of each organ much more easily.” 

Medical student Zachariah Ow Gene Wing recalled how an animation of the different layers of the scalp helped him in a dissection class.

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Medical student Zachariah Ow Gene Wing talking to Song Lin about his dissection techniques.

“It’s really important because to me, anatomy was just always about building a good mental picture and I think for a lot of people, it’s hard to build that good mental picture just by using words,” he said. 

“You can’t convey the same sort of spatial realisation as you can when you have animations, when you appreciate how different structures relate to each other in the body.”

THE BRIDGE BETWEEN ART AND SCIENCE

While Song Lin’s illustrations have been used to teach many generations of aspiring doctors, the former graphic and web designer doesn’t have a background in medicine.

Graduating from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Song Lin worked at a multimedia firm until she saw the newspaper advert for a medical illustrator’s job in 2002. With a personal interest in medicine, she thought the job would be a natural fit for her.

On the day of her interview, she was taken on a tour of the museum and the hall where the silent mentors are stored to test her ability to cope with working in an environment full of dead people’s remains.

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The sign outside the anatomy hall.

“To work here, you definitely cannot have a weak heart ... we have students who fainted at first sight,” said Song Lin.

Courage is not the only prerequisite for the job.

Having no medical background meant that she had to spend hours studying anatomical pictures so that she knew how to draw body parts accurately. 

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Song Lin sketching at her office.

Professors also work closely with her to ensure her work delivers what they need in a particular illustration.

“They will sit beside me. As they describe to me, I will do the storyboard,” said Song Lin. “They explain it to me as if I were a student.”

And in some ways, she is. 

“When the students are having classes, I will go and sit in,” she said.

“All of us are learning. They learn and I learn, and the professors are learning too,” she said, attributing this learning environment as the biggest reason why she has continued in the job for so long.

As a mother, the illustration that she has produced which left the deepest impression on her was the formation of a baby in a mother’s womb. 

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Song Lin's sketch of the formation of a baby, which eventually became an animation.

“Seeing how the embryo changes as it grows, it’s honestly not pretty,” Song Lin laughed before changing her tone. “But at the point when it slowly changed to the form of a baby, I felt that it is a miracle.”

“Basically it started from a cell ... how did this tiny life form inside the mother? To me, it’s really very miraculous.” 

HUMANISING A ‘COLD’ SUBJECT

However, Song Lin admitted that analysing bodies in such detail can make someone detached from the humanity behind them to the point where the samples are seen as nothing more than useful educational tools.

“When I look at these, you can say these are all specimens,” she said, pointing at the preserved body parts.

“It is only when we go down to the dissection class and they (the students) are dissecting, then you will feel that these are still humans, that they were alive before this.”

To ensure that students remember that the body they are working with was once somebody’s parent, spouse or child, a photograph is placed next to each corpse showing the person when he or she was alive, along with their name, age and cause of death. 

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Song Lin placing a photo of a silent mentor in front of his body.

“Song Lin actually is the one who prepared photos of our silent mentors, which is extremely important because we wanted our students to know that behind all these cadavers they are facing, there’s an identity, there’s a name,” said Dr Ng.

Photographs are usually provided by the family members but if there isn’t one, Song Lin doesn’t leave the photo frame blank. 

“If they don’t have (a photo), then there’s always a basic identity card I can use.”

Dr Ng added that what Song Lin is doing “adds a human aspect”, which is something that wasn’t previously emphasised.

“Dissection of a human cadaver used to be very cold, but since we started the Silent Mentors Programme, we try to humanise it,” he revealed.

In 2003, NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine stopped its dissection classes when faced with a shortage of human cadavers, which were traditionally unclaimed bodies.

After a gap of 13 years, the class was reintroduced due to a surge in the number of donated bodies to the school as more people grew aware of the Silent Mentor Programme that was started in 2012.

Every year, Song Lin adds photos of their faces to an animated memorial board that was put up to honour each person who has given their body to help medical students.

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The memorial board outside the anatomy hall.

“Some family members actually visit this board to pay respects, especially on the special day of the silent mentors like their death anniversaries (and) their birthdays,” added Dr Ng. “Sometimes we see that the family members left a bouquet of flowers outside the board.”

Stressing the importance of the photographs, Song Lin said: “We want to let the students know that every silent mentor has his or her own story. And they are so noble to donate their own bodies, so we really need to learn humbly.”

WATCH: How human donors and an artist help train future doctors (7:27)

LIFE AND DEATH

The silent mentors do not stay at the school forever.

Liu Shangda died at the age of 73, and entered the school two years ago as a silent mentor. Now, the time had come to return his remains to his family.

One Friday last month, the school's usually quiet reception office was bustling. Four silent mentors were leaving for Mandai Columbarium, where they would be cremated.

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The four silent mentors that were cremated on 26 July 2019.

The school helps families to arrange final rites for all silent mentors. Together with family members, staff from the Department of Anatomy, as well as the medical students who worked with the bodies, are present at each ceremony.

“Without our four silent mentors, you’d have realised that our education will be incomplete,” said Dr Ng as he addressed the students.

“They have made the ultimate sacrifice of the body for us to understand more about the complexity and intricacy of the human body.” 

Mr Liu’s daughter, 40-year-old Liu Xin, who had been standing calmly on the side, started weeping at Dr Ng’s words.

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Liu Xin, Liu Shangda's daughter.

“Before he retired, he was a professor in physical education. He’s worked more than 40 years in education,” the clinical research coordinator told CNA.

“I wrote an article two years ago in memory of my dad. He was a teacher when he was alive and he’s still a teacher when he passed on.”

The service at Mandai was a calm and sombre affair. There were no heavy tears or cries of denial - only a sense of peace that filled the hall.

Surrounding their father’s coffin, Shah Chandrakant Mohanlal’s family sung a Jain prayer song in harmony before the cremation began.

For them, this day was “a closure” after two long years.

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The Shah family reciting a Jain prayer before the cremation of silent mentor Shah Chandrakant Mohanlal.

In the beginning, the family admitted that Mr Shah’s decision to donate his body to science was “difficult to swallow”, as it is part of their culture to cremate the body immediately after death.

“He said, according to Jainism, everything is to do with the soul so why should you worry about the body after that?” recalled Mr Shah’s daughter-in-law Kenna Damani, 56.

Eventually, they accepted his decision because of the dignified way the school treats the bodies of loved ones.

“Because I saw how the school respects them, the way the embalmer came out and explained everything, it was just very inspiring,” said Mr Shah’s eldest daughter Naina Shah, 62, who was also his main caretaker.

“I’m really very thankful for them to give so much respect to these silent mentors.”

Throughout the whole ceremony, Song Lin maintained her role as a documentarian of human life as she photographed the significant moments till the end.

“Looking at how the students treated the silent mentors with respect and how the family members mourn for their loved ones, I can empathise with them,” she reflected.

“In the whole process, I will try my best to document their memories of the silent mentors.”

However, not everyone receives a send-off.

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A lab technician filling the formaldehyde solution for a specimen at the museum.

Bodies that went unclaimed from the Mortuary@HSA may be immortalised at the Anatomy Museum. Since Song Lin started working here, around 100 body parts have been added to the collection.

“They are quite pitiful (as) no one claimed them,” said Song Lin. “But I still feel that it’s noble to have these.”

For Song Lin, being able to be a part of the education of medical science even without medical training is something that she remains grateful for.

“To be able to contribute something to them, I feel it is something to be happy about because this is like recognition to me, and most importantly, I have learnt a lot myself,” she reflected.

“The body is just an empty shell. Sometimes it feels like you may not wake up after you go to sleep tonight. So I feel that what I do today should be answerable to myself and live my days honestly.”

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Source: CNA/co(db)

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