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Derek Watts on Witnessing Greatness

26 March 2019
The tension around the operating table when it got to the vital placement of the prosthesis around a slender nerve was palpable. One miniscule slip and the patient’s hearing would truly be lost forever.

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Derek Watts (@DerekWatts) has been a journalist for nearly 30 years, presenting on South African television since 1985 as a sports anchor. Derek has been an anchor and presenter on Carte Blanche since the programme's inception in 1988. 


IT’S NOT SO hard to be humble as a Carte Blanche presenter.

Because our weekly fare is not all about crooks and fraudsters.

We meet intrepid inventors like Elon Musk who, amongst developing Tesla cars, Powerwalls and Hyperlinks, seems to have taken over the United States space program as a small step in his vision to terraform Mars.

The New Age guru of meditation, self-healing, alternative medicine and diet, Deepak Chopra, who inspires millions with his inspirational books and lectures.

As Deepak says “In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.”

And those who have been anything but still. Like our own Wayde van Niekerk, the world and Olympic 400 metres record holder and, going back a few years, the mercurial Michael Johnson who rather reluctantly congratulated Wayde for smashing his 17-year-old record!

But I don’t think anything can be as humbling as donning mask and gown and standing next to a specialist surgeon holding life and death at the tip of his scalpel.

Not that the surgeons are always humble. We filmed a bloodless liver transplant at a teaching hospital in Leeds a while ago.

At the crucial moment the donor liver was very carefully removed from the cooler box (sounds rather crude I know) and placed in the cavity.

“Did you get the shot?”, the surgeon asked our cameraman.

He was still mumbling something about focus when the liver specialist barked to his assistants “Put it back in the box!”

And the amazement showed on my face because, and don’t ask me why, masks weren’t compulsory in the Leeds hospital at that time.

In an interview after the operation, I remarked to the good doctor that he didn’t lack confidence. “You can afford to be confident when you are the best in the world” he snapped back!

But the Leeds experience was most certainly an exception.

Take Professor Mashudu Tshifularo for example. The University of Pretoria Academic who, along with his amazing team, recently performed the world’s first middle ear transplant using 3D printed prosthesis.

The professor, who believes that academics have a responsibility to innovate and provide solutions for communities, started the intricate operation with a prayer and quietly explained every detail of the transplant.


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While I have forgotten every algebra equation from schooldays, I can still recall my biology lesson on the malleus, incus and stapes – the ossicles of the middle ear.

What came as an eye-opener (so to speak) was the size of the 3D printed titanium replacement… not much bigger than a grain of rice! And this tiny prosthesis has to transmit sounds from the tympanic membrane or eardrum – something like a miniature tuning fork.

It is a story on its own: how the leader of the 3-D printing trio, jeweller Jason Laing, honed his skills in this fast evolving art. A horrific bike accident a few years ago left him with virtually no shoulder blade and 32 broken bones. So his colleagues, medical product designer Philip van der Walt and 3D manufacturing engineer Gavin Leggot fervently set about printing replacement bones and finding a willing surgeon to rebuild his body.

It was a learning curve of collaboration between 3D printing technology and the world of medicine. And it has been the synergy between the developers and Professor Tshifularo which has been a hallmark of the success of this procedure.

One big advantage of watching micro surgery is that everything that the Professor is seeing through the microscope is transmitted on to large monitors in the theatre. So the irony is that, as a bystander, you see far more than in a kidney transplant for example.

The tension around the operating table when it got to the vital placement of the prosthesis around a slender nerve was palpable. One miniscule slip and the patient’s hearing would truly be lost forever.

Professor Tshifularo remained calm despite the glare of television cameras around him and the fact that he had to file down the prosthesis a couple of times before it fitted neatly into the cavity.

And while I’m sure it’s not really accepted practice in an operating theatre, there was a round of spontaneous applause when the 3D printed replacement for the bones of the inner ear found its new home and a medical World First could be celebrated.

He turned to the camera and said simply “The baby is in place. There we are. This is what we’ve been trying to do.”

Years of research by the Professor had been rewarded and his dream to redefine middle ear surgery had materialised.

But a new journey is just starting.