Sleight of Hand

An ex-con cons his way into getting a new limb

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It's not exactly standard medical practice to call up a patient's rap sheet before prepping him for surgery, so you can hardly blame the doctors. Besides, a criminal past is no reason to deny someone medical treatment--even a treatment that is purely experimental and has nothing to do with saving lives.

Still, surgeons who perform radical, headline-grabbing operations know the value of good publicity. So it was something of a shock to an international team poised to perform the world's first successful hand transplant to discover that they had chosen a man with a record as long, so to speak, as his arm.

In the two years he had been under evaluation for the long-planned operation, Clint Hallam passed himself off as an Australian businessman who had lost his right hand and forearm in a logging accident. Turns out he really lost it using a power saw in a New Zealand jail, where he had been locked up for fraud. Hallam finally came clean two days before the operation, which was performed late last month in a French hospital. A Perth newspaper later reported that he has a court date in Australia in January on seven more fraud charges.

Embarrassed as they might have been, the surgeons had no grounds for canceling the operation--especially given how badly Hallam wanted that arm. He was so eager to be a guinea pig, in fact, that he'd also registered with a U.S. group that had hoped to be the first to transplant a hand. The winning team insisted they were not in a race with the Americans or anyone else, but they couldn't help crowing last week. "They may well be in a race with us," Australian microsurgeon Dr. Earl Owen told the New York Times, "but they will never catch up."

--By Michael D. Lemonick