As It Happens

Doctor who performed world's first hand transplant recalls complicated surgery, strange aftermath

Dr. Nadey Hakim has performed hundreds of surgeries. Only one caused a sensation around the world. Sixteen years ago this week, Dr. Hakim was part of a team of surgeons who performed the first-ever hand transplant. During the 14-hour procedure in France, they removed the lower arm of a young victim of a motorcycle accident and attached the hand to...

Dr. Nadey Hakim has performed hundreds of surgeries. Only one caused a sensation around the world. Sixteen years ago this week, Dr. Hakim was part of a team of surgeons who performed the first-ever hand transplant. During the 14-hour procedure in France, they removed the lower arm of a young victim of a motorcycle accident and attached the hand to a 45-year-old man from New Zealand named Clint Hallam.

"It [was] a miracle to see that hand being revived with blood supply, getting through the vessels and then the skin turning pink," Dr. Hakim recalls to As It Happens host Carol Off.

However, following the successful surgery and worldwide publicity that followed, the patient was recognized back home. It turned out Hallam wasn't a "businessman" as he initially claimed, but an ex-con who had lost his hand in prison in a circular-saw accident.

"It was shocking news to all of us," Dr. Hakim says.

Worse, Hallam had no money to pay for the procedure. While the London-based team of doctors were working free of charge, the Lyon, France-based hospital in which the procedure took place, had to swallow all of the operation's costs.

Dr. Nadey Hakim (Photo: Reuters)

"For two-and-a-half years, that was a viable hand," Dr. Hakim says of the operation's results. "Unfortunately, he stopped taking his [immunosuppressive] medications... because he ran out of money and this is why we ended up losing that hand."

About 18 months after the surgery, Hallum told the BBC in an interview that the hand "started to feel uncomfortable." [You can hear more clips from Hallum in our interview.]

"It was not perfect," Dr. Hakim conceded, "maybe a centimetre longer [than his original hand]. It was thicker because of the amount of skin we had to cover the defect with... at one point, when having stopped taking his medication, the hand started to be heavier. The colour of skin turned darker and eventually the skin started sloughing. It became a bit of a problem and that's when I saw him in London [in 2001] when he came asking for it to be removed."

Dr. Hakim agreed to amputate the hand.

"I was fully supportive of this option unlike possibly other surgeons who wanted to persevere," he says. "Obviously, if he kept it on his body, he would have ended up intoxicating himself and eventually becoming poisoned from that hand. The best option was to remove it."

The amputation was a success.

"When I removed the arm the next day, he was perfectly fine," he says. "He recovered very well and I saw him many times since. I understand he's now using a prosthetic hand and he's happy. He's living a normal life; he's got a family."

Since then, there have been about 50 hand transplants performed worldwide.

Would Dr. Hakim ever consider undergoing a hand transplant, if he was in a similar position as Hallam?

"I would probably stick to amputation myself," he says. "I feel personally, psychologically, that you need to be much stronger than I possibly [am]. This is why I think, in a way, we owe Clint Hallam a lot for having had the courage to undergo such an innovative surgery."

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