A waiting game

15 August, 2019 / editorial

Will Peakin  editor@sdmag.co.uk
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A little over 20 years ago, an Agence France-Presse report caught my eye; it was news of the world’s first hand transplant. Clint Hallam, a New Zealander, who had lost a limb while serving time in a low-security prison (so low-security that he had been using a chainsaw to cut some rafters in a roof space when the accident happened), had undergone the operation in secret, in Lyon.

At the time, I was Scotland editor of the Sunday Times – but after four enjoyable years had decided to freelance from south-west France where, a few years earlier, my wife and I had bought a house. Before leaving, I was determined to win a commission from the paper’s magazine; I figured it would serve as a great calling card in securing work from other publishers. One of the magazine’s commissioning editors agreed that an interview with Hallam could form the basis of a compelling piece.

In London, Professor Nadey Hakim, a member of the international team which had performed the procedure, kindly spent several hours talking through its genesis. By phone from Sydney, the pioneering microsurgeon Professor Earl Owen added layers of fascinating detail; as a schoolboy, while his father and uncles were away fighting in the Second World War, he endured boring lessons by surreptitiously carving tiny figures of soldiers from balsa wood, unseen; his hands hidden under the desk lid. It was a youthful skill he would later put to a career of life-saving and life-transforming use.

Hallam, however, proved elusive; he said he would only be interviewed in return for payment. The feature on hold, my wife and I made the move to France. But after a couple of months of persuasion, Hallam relented. We met for dinner in Lyon, where he was receiving follow-up treatment, and I shook him by his new hand. Hallam spoke candidly about the experience. By then, I had learned that a second operation was planned; the first double hand transplant. The hospital’s photographer told me he intended to record the event through an intricate array of in-theatre lenses and agreed to provide images. 

Research for the feature continued, interviewing potential patients – among them, a Frenchman, Denis Chatelier, who had lost both hands when an artisanal rocket he was handling exploded. Throughout this time, the Lyon team had been in fierce competition with a rival group of surgeons in America. The former worked mostly in secret, the latter were open and consultative. I spent several days in Louisville, Kentucky, interviewing an array of surgeons and medical ethicists. One spoke about the possibility of face transplants (the first would happen, in Lyon, seven years later).

To perform the first double hand transplant, both teams had to play a waiting game; for a suitable donor, and a family willing for their departed loved one to donate. “Hands are visible, personal,” I subsequently wrote. “A constant reminder that someone now dead touched, ate, lived and loved with them.” Then the call came; a donor had been found, Chatelier received his new hands and Lyon beat Louisville again.  A little over a week later, it was the cover story of the Sunday Times Magazine, with the hospital photographer’s incredible images inside.

More than two decades on, after returning to Scotland and covering business and technology for various magazines, I’m in a new job as editor of Scottish Dental. The reason for this, non-dental, tale is to illustrate how understanding and reporting a subject benefits from months of research and talking to those who know it intimately – and to ask for readers’ indulgence while I get to know the dental profession and its people.

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