Hand graft a `false miracle' says surgeon

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The Independent Online
A LEADING surgeon said yesterday that the grafting of a hand on to a New Zealand man last week was a "folly" and a "false miracle", performed for media glory.

The 13-hour operation, a world first, was carried out by an international team of surgeons in France.

There has also been astonishment in New Zealand and Australia at the identity and history of the patient (said to be recovering well in the hospital in Lyons where the operation took place). It has emerged that Clint Hallam, 48, lost his right hand in a wood-cutting accident while in prison in New Zealand for fraud. He faces outstanding charges of fraud and failure to pay debts in New Zealand and his adopted home of Australia.

A man to whom Mr Hallam allegedly owes money in Napier, north-eastern New Zealand, told the New Zealand Press Association that he was a "plausible toad. I only hope that he puts his new hand in his pocket to pay the people he owes."

At the same time, the leader of the medical team has been accused of milking the exploit for political gain. Professor Jean-Michel Dubernard, of the Edouard Herriot Hospital in Lyons, who is also MP and assistant mayor for the city, dismissed the accusations. Similar operations are planned, he said.

After several days of murmuring in international medical circles, doubts about the operation exploded yesterday in an ill-tempered article in the French newspaper, Le Figaro. Dr Guy Foucher, president of the International Federation of Hand Surgeons, described the transplanting of a donor hand by a team of eight surgeons from France, Australia, Britain and Italy as "not an exploit but a folly". Even if the operation was successful - and that was open to question - the transplanted hand and wrist would be no more useful than an artificial hand, he said.

There was nothing medically extraordinary about joining the new hand to the body; three-quarters of the surgical interns in France were capable of mastering the micro-surgical techniques involved. It remained to be seen whether the new drugs used would prevent Mr Hallam's body from rejecting the hand. Even if they did so, the dulling of Mr Hallam's immunity would place him at risk of disease for the rest of his life; he would have been converted from a healthy man into a "sick" one.

The only reason such an operation had not been performed years ago was that it was ethically and medically unsound, Dr Foucher said. After nine years without a hand, it was unlikely the nerves and muscles in Mr Hallam's arm would be able to operate the new hand normally.

"Many other people will now build their hopes on this false miracle. It is essential that the failure of the hand to function properly - something which will only be apparent in one year or two - should receive just as much media coverage as the operation itself."

Professor Dubernard rejected the charges. New immunity suppressing drugs made such operations feasible and it was essential that medicine continued to extend its boundaries, he said. He had assembled a team of respected surgeons to avoid allegations that he was taking part in a "media race" to be the first to transplant a donor limb.