Hand and face transplant surgeon Simon Talbot is back in his native New Zealand to tell a surgical conference about his pioneering work in the US.

A 39-year-old reconstructive plastic surgeon, Dr Talbot runs the hand transplant programme at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and has participated in the seven full and partial face transplants done there -- work which he says has overcome initial perceptions of its being a "Frankenstein-type experiment".

Born in Palmerston North, he grew up in Hamilton and studied at the Auckland University Medical School.

Face transplants are an enormous undertaking, requiring, aside from the medical and psycho-social preparations, a main operation of 12 to 24 hours involving around 14 surgeons and 30 theatre staff in total. The post-operative care and rehabilitation can involve a further 70 or more health and support workers.


The first partial face transplant was done in 2005 in France on woman who had been attacked by a dog. More than 20 full or partial face transplants have now been completed. Two of the patients have died, one in China, reported to have been after alternative medicine practitioners advised him to stop taking immune-suppression therapy, the other in France during a second operation to treat an infection in the transplant.

Dr Talbot said a face transplant could help a patient with devastating disfigurement from injuries or abnormalities to regain a normal life. They could regain a relatively normal appearance, the ability to speak intelligibly, raise their eyebrows, smile, eat, smell, taste and other functions.

Mitch Hunter following initial reconstructive surgery after his accident. Photo / Supplied
Mitch Hunter following initial reconstructive surgery after his accident. Photo / Supplied

"Many people who lose a limb experience challenging physiological issues ... Our hands also play a very important role in our emotional expression and interaction with others.

"It makes such a difference to recipients to be able to use their hands and eat independently or walk around with a face that doesn't attract a lot of attention."

He said there was some discomfort among surgeons about hand and face transplants when they began because these parts of a person's body are highly visible, very personal and recognisable.

"But that's changed as we've seen how these transplants really improve the lives of recipients.

"It's also made families far more comfortable with the idea of donating their loved one's hands and faces. They can see this isn't a Frankenstein-type experiment; it's real life."