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Tue Sep 27 17:35:18 SAST 2016

'Dr Dick' rises to the occasion

Farren Collins | 20 March, 2015 00:32
SURGICAL SAVIOUR: Professor André van der Merwe, of the University of Stellenbosch's medical department. He and his team have carried out the world's first successful penis transplant, at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town
Image by: ADRIAN DE KOCK

In a matter of days, André van der Merwe went from being a respected but low-profile urologist in Stellenbosch to being a global hero besieged by callers from across the world.

Van der Merwe and his team from Stellenbosch University announced on Friday last week that they had performed the world's first successful penis transplant.

Van der Merwe, now dubbed "Dr Dick", said: "I've had someone e-mail from America who wants his penis removed.

"He wants to be genderless and donate his penis to somebody, so I will ask my colleagues in the US who want to copy the surgery to do the operation on one of their own patients and I will be a consultant."

Van der Merwe, 46, a self-confessed Barbra Streisand fan who grew up in Sutherland, in the Northern Cape, has been inundated with requests for interviews and for surgical interventions from as far afield as Colombia and Russia.

He has been invited to Philadelphia in April to give a presentation on his world-first procedure.

But he remains modest, even dismissive, about his achievement.

"The hype of the operation is a reflection on us [as a society] rather than a reflection on the operation. I think we are finding out about ourselves. We haven't spoken about issues below the belt that often."

He said "resistance from inside the transplant fraternity in South Africa" had prompted him to walk away from doing the procedure four times.

But the needs of patients eventually convinced him.

Nine patients await the same surgery after losing their penises in botched ritual circumcisions.

Van der Merwe said skin from the inside of the patient's leg and tattooing were used to match the colour of the transplanted penis to the recipient's pigmentation.

Only healthy organs are harvested but Van der Merwe said there was no way to be sure of the donor's sexual history because he was usually dead.

If the operation is completely successful, the new penis will be fully functional. Recipients would experience erections and orgasms, andbe able to have children. Full sensation is restored to the new penis once its nerve endings are fully healed, which can take two years.

Everything would have been a lot different had Van der Merwe followed his childhood dream of becoming an astronomer.

"I chose urology because it's what I call 'a beloved speciality'.

"You are able to improve someone's quality of life in a short time."

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