The moment that Nadey Hakim realised life would never be the same was on the Heathrow Express arriving into London 22 years ago.
A rail passenger opposite, holding the Evening Standard newspaper, looked from the front page to Prof Hakim and did a double-take. The article revealed that the brilliant young medic had performed the world's first hand transplant at a hospital in Lyon, France.
Prof Hakim was returning from the procedure and his hometown newspaper was recounting the breakthrough for its readers on the evening commute.
“There were eight surgeons in the team and I was the only British one, and, of course, all the papers talked about the British surgeon and hardly mentioned the French or Italian,” he said.
That was in 1998 and he has never forgotten the feeling of being discovered. Not yet 40, he had already carried out the first successful pancreas transplant, going on to execute arduous surgery involving the attachment of multiple limbs. He still recalls the date of that pancreas operation: January 31, 1995, when he left home at 3am to start the procedure.
Born in Britain but growing up in Lebanon, Prof Hakim was shaped by an idyllic childhood and gained a Francophone education that he falls back on to this day.
It was the onset of the Civil War in 1975 that drove the family to flee into exile, leading to a life of achievement and far-flung travel. Prof Hakim speaks nine languages, is an accomplished clarinet player, and a passion of 25 years’ sculpting as many as two busts a month has seen him journey to Pyongyang, the Kremlin, the Elysee Palace and No 10 Downing St.
From his dedicated studio in St John's Wood, central London, he has produced a series of bronze works, many the likeness of international leaders.
"I am a very realistic sculptor," he told The National. "I would like the person to be remembered the way he is. When you do a sculpture to the Pope, he becomes a human being like you and me.
“Then I wrote to the Vatican, sent a picture of the bust, said I want to present it to the Pope - they liked it and invited me. The same thing applied to Putin, Macron.”
In September 2018, he took one of his creations to North Korea where it was unveiled at the notorious museum of gifts to the Kim family leaders.
His advice is to go to the top and never ask aides or assistants for help. After the Russian ambassador to the UK turned down his offer, Prof Hakim emailed The Kremlin. Embassy officials were soon on the phone to arrange access to Prof Hakim’s portrait.
For much of his career, the 62-year-old has been associated with St Mary’s in Paddington, part of Imperial College hospitals where he was made a consultant at the young age of 35. “A lot of my trainees were older than me,” he observed.
One key to his early breakthrough was that he had studied not only in Paris but in the US. He also had a PhD, which was relatively rare for a surgeon in the 1990s.
The painting on the wall
It wasn't long before he became president of the International College of Surgeons. An oil painting, something of a pantheon of the past presidents, hangs on the wall of the Harley Street consulting rooms - not far from St Mary’s - where we met on a sunny afternoon in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I was 44 at the time; usually you are 65 to 70 when you ascend. You see the painting behind you,” he said, gesturing. “The guy beside me was an Australian microsurgeon, Earl Owen, who invented the electronic microscope.”
Inspired by Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, it depicts Prof Hakim demonstrating the removal of a living donor kidney and won the BP Portrait Prize. It also underlined to him the importance of mentors in developing a career for it had been Professor Owen who asked him to join the hand transplant team.
“He said he was 65 and had never done a transplant and so he asked me to be the transplant surgeon on the team,” he said. “And then, because of this work, he asked me to run for the International College of Surgeons’ president in Chicago.
“I was very fortunate to train and do most surgeries and do them well - I don’t just limit it to noses, for example. Once, one professor at the Cromwell told me I had done 44 different operations for them.”
He has, however, had his share of battles to wage. As a trainee, he was told bluntly that if he got a job it would be “cutting the neck” of a British candidate. “I’m sorry but I am British,” he asserted.
At that time, he had the inspiration of the Egyptian-born Magdi Yacoub who performed one of the first heart transplants in the UK in 1980. “I know him well; he struggled a lot to get a professorship, he got it late but then he got knighted,” he said. “Even then, when he retired they were not very nice to him and he ended up back in Egypt.”
Seven centres in Britain now specialise in pancreas transplantation, performing 80 such operations a year. He has written the second edition of his book on the transplant procedure.
Hard work, he believes, always pays. “With an unstoppable desire, you get where you want in the end,” he said.
Among the many places that Prof Hakim has worked is the UAE and he still travels to Nigeria regularly to perform charitable procedures there, particularly kidney transplants. “Almost every day, I do my transplants,” he adds.
2020, a year of tragedy
After many years on the fundraising committee of the British Red Cross, Prof Hakim was appointed as its vice-president. It is a position that has unexpectedly brought him closer to his Lebanese roots. When the recent port explosion occurred, the British Red Cross launched the Beirut Emergency Appeal, joining forces with its Lebanese counterpart and enabling him to send money across quickly.
He considers the generation of financial support for charities or causes to be his forte. “The key to fundraising is simple: just ask the question. You should not ask for small money - ask for a million, they will give it. This is the human instinct.
“I knew a billionaire, a true billionaire. I said 'I want £5 million', and he said right there, ‘I’ll give you £3m.'”
He is also a member of the International Lebanese Medics Association, a group of doctors in 30 countries that offers support and financial assistance for projects at home.
Prof Hakim shared personally the loss and anguish that came in the wake of the Beirut blast. His niece perished in the explosion but not before her parents were able to see her moved into an ambulance. She had been on the third floor of the building when the wall came in, but managed to telephone her father, who is a doctor.
“He rushed but the traffic was terrible," he recalls. "He got there and she was still alive. They took her away and there was confusion about where she was but 12 hours later the morgue called.”
The Covid-19 pandemic hit home when Prince Charles was diagnosed two days after Prof Hakim and a fellow physician, Adil El Tayar, had attended a dinner at the heir to the throne’s Clarence House residence.
Soon afterwards, Sudan-born Dr El Tayar, with whom Prof Hakim had trained and collaborated on research papers published two decades ago, became the first surgeon working in the British national health service to die as a result of contracting the coronavirus. “Unfortunately, he went very quickly,” Prof Hakim said.
More than a quarter of a century has elapsed since Prof Hakim brought the skills he honed at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to the operating tables of London. Occasionally, the father of four receives a reminder of the impact his work has made on people's lives.
“The first transplant I ever did at St Mary’s was in 1995. Three years ago, I was flying out of Heathrow and one of the security guards waved to me,” he recalls.
“‘You don’t remember me?’
“I said, ‘I don’t, I’m sorry.’
“‘You did my transplant more than 20 years ago and I’m still going well’ — obviously, that’s a nice story for me to tell because I didn’t see it coming.
"We couldn't take a selfie because of security rules but we have been in touch again since."