In 1954, a procedure at a Boston hospital made international headlines: it was the first kidney transplant. In 1967 we saw another milestone, when a South African surgeon performed the first successful transplant of a human heart.
Well now a hospital in Houston has opened up a new frontier in transplant surgery. Jim Boysen, a 55-year-old cancer patient from Austin, has received the world’s first skull cap transplant. Dr. Michael Klebuc with Houston Methodist Hospital led the team of plastic and reconstructive surgeons in replacing essentially the entire skullcap of Mr. Boysen. But that wasn’t all. The point of the skullcap surgery was to help a pre-existing cancerous wound heal, so that Boysen could then receive two more transplants; of his pancreas and kidney.
The planning for the surgery took 18 months and the idea itself goes back four years, and was split between more than 50 doctors, nurses and aids. It was a joint program from Houston Methodist and MD Anderson Cancer Center.
We asked Dr. Klebuc to flesh out the procedure for us.
Before you got out of the operating room, there were signs it was successful. The new scalp was … sweating?
“It was actually a pretty miraculous moment.… You can’t just place the tissue… and hope it survives, you have to re-establish its circulation. You have to connect little blood vessels about one-sixteenth in diameter.”
The stitches were so fine, they were about half the diameter of a hair, Dr. Klebuc says. He and his team used tools meant for fine Swiss watchmaking. Then things got circulating. Remember, this isn’t just bone, it’s also skin and blood vessels.
“I will say it was a magical moment when we re-established the circulation for the first time, and you could see this scalp tissue going from something that’s pale and ashen grey and lifeless to something that’s pink and robust and alive.”
The photos show an amazing match. Will Boysen, the patient, in fact have hair growth as well?
“Absolutely, his hair is growing already and I think in the next couple of weeks we’re going to have to arrange a haircut for him.”