Aged just 38, Simon Talbot (Hamilton 1990-1994) is a Harvard graduate and leading Plastic Surgeon in Boston, Massachusetts.
Dr Simon Talbot’s skills as a plastic surgeon are in great demand, largely due to the United States involvement in recent world conflicts.
“We have an unfortunate number of wounded warriors who returned from the Middle East with battleground injuries involving limbs,” Talbot says.
“We continue to have multiple patients on our waiting list for limb transplantation and will no doubt be continuing this major procedure for people in the future.”
Talbot is a graduate of Harvard Medical School and a leading plastic surgeon, specialising in limb transplantation, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
His talents have seen him climb the ranks in the profession since he arrived in the USA 12 years ago. He is now the hospital’s Upper Extremity Transplant Programme Director, and an Associate Professor of the Harvard Medical School.
This field is a relatively recent area of discovery in medicine.
“It is a new area of understanding and it is a privilege to learn new things and be there right at the beginning.”
“I have been fortuitous to have had many opportunities and people have put confidence in me.”
Talbot’s areas of speciality are general plastic surgery, hand surgery, microsurgery and burns surgery. He is involved in some leading research work around developing devices for robotic microsurgery. He also specialises in the areas of neurologic regeneration and rehabilitation.
In June this year, Talbot was at the centre of media coverage in the USA for his role as the lead surgeon in the case of a quadruple amputee having surgery to attach two arms. Talbot fronted a media conference alongside his patient Will Lautzenheiser who lost all four of his limbs after a streptococcal infection ravaged his body.
He explained that in arm transplants, nerves grow at a rate of about 1mm per day, so recovery takes longer when the nerves have longer to travel.
The goal is to give the patient “a tremendous amount more independence, when you don’t have very much, a little is a lot.”
It was an experimental procedure which had been performed only a few times in the United States and doctors had never performed a transplant so high on the arm.
It has taken years of training, mainly in the USA, for Talbot get to this point in his career.
Talbot left St Paul’s in 1994 and went to Auckland Medical School where he gained degrees in Medicine and Surgery.
His first posting was to Tauranga Hospital where he spent 15 months becoming fully qualified as a surgeon.
In 2002, Simon headed overseas and spent just over two years in New York City. It was there he was given a job by New Zealander Murray Brennan, the Chair of Surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
“It was a great time in your 20s living in New York City. It is a very cosmopolitan place. You meet a lot of people and they become your friends and contacts for life. It was a very fun place.”
Looking back, he credits Dr Jonathan Koea, a surgeon in Auckland who was instrumental in guiding him into the US health system.
It was during this time Simon developed an interest in reconstructive plastic surgery, especially hand surgery, and he applied to various training programmes.
He describes his acceptance into the Harvard Medical School as “partly a stroke of luck” but also due to a reference from an Australian surgeon, and now colleague, Julian Pribaz.
“He was also from the other side of the world, and realised that people from places like New Zealand have a lot to offer.”
Talbot spent several years at Harvard and through this achieved his posting at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he has been working for four years.
He works with a team of 14 plastic surgeons.
“I am privileged to lead and co-ordinate the team, composed of upwards of 12 surgeons, both procuring limbs and reattaching these to patients who have lost their limbs through trauma, infection or burns.”
“The operations involve understanding every part of upper extremity anatomy and physiology and are an intense area of plastic surgery research.”
Talbot says there is growing demand for limb transplant surgery.
“It is a very diverse and interesting place, there is so much going on, so many interesting things happening and so many opportunities. We are never short of work.”
Talbot’s wife Dr Elizabeth Morgan, works at the same hospital as a Pathologist.
He met her through a plastic surgeon flatmate while at university and they married in Florida three years ago.
Due to the on call demands of his work, it is hard to maintain interests outside work. “The hours are generally pretty crazy.”
“My wife and I do very long hours and we should probably have more work life balance.”
He is on call one week in every six, and has to act quickly to carry out transplants when donor parts become available.
He loves travelling to new places, he “runs quite keenly” and has a kayak “in the garage.”
Travel to medical conferences has taken Talbot all over the world.
He says the plastic surgery fraternity is fairly small. “It is a tight professional network and an interesting bunch of people.”
Looking back on his education, Simon describes his time at St Paul’s as “an incredible time.” He credits biology teacher Kay Etheredge for kick-starting his interest in “things medical.” He says his education taught him many fundamental life skills which have helped him achieve what he has.
“There is no question; it is your education which gets you there.”
While living in Hamilton, Simon attended Hillcrest Primary School and Southwell before arriving at St Paul’s in 1990.
Talbot’s father Richard Talbot was a heart specialist and his mother Mary a nurse at Waikato Hospital. His parents have now retired to Nelson and Talbot visits about every three years. Talbot believes there are two characteristics that make Kiwis like himself a success on the international stage – tenacity and resourcefulness.
“Above just about anything else, it is both of these skills, and the ability to think on your feet. These are skills you learn at High School, fundamental values that you can’t replace.”
He also believes innovation is what sets Kiwis apart from others.
“You need to find your own niche and be unique.”
He has struck Kiwis in the United States and at medical conferences abroad. “It is a very small world when you get out of New Zealand. You realise there are New Zealanders in lots of crazy places.
“There are many Kiwis who have forged the way ahead of me.”