Retired South Shields train driver had ‘spare parts’ arm amputation that saved him from cancer

David Brown with his wife. He has been jetsetting since having a groundbreaking cancer operation which saw his arm amputated
-Credit: (Image: David Brown / NHS)

When a retired South Shields train driver's cancer returned, he thought he would be unable to live if he lost his arm.

However, thanks to a revolutionary "spare parts" surgery, he's recovered well from a daunting amputation and been globetrotting with his wife to places including Bali, Egypt and India. David Brown, 58, had previously had two malignant melanoma skin cancers removed, then he discovered a lump under his arm.

Unfortunately this lump turned out to be a form of cancer called sarcoma, impacting the tissues between and around the organs. A limb-preserving operation was able to save his arm at this stage - but in 2023 a new lump appeared. He was told he would need to undergo a drastic "forequarter amputation" - removing his arm, shoulder blade and collar bone.

This was carried out by Royal Victoria Infirmary consultant surgeon Mr Mani Ragbir. Mr Ragbir has supervised published research looking at how to use tissue that would otherwise be discarded to help during reconstructive surgery after amputation.

That work has been authored by registrar Dr Sachin Teelucksingh and surgeons Juan Enrique Berner, Timothy Crowley and Daniel B Saleh. This so-called "spare parts" procedure means medics can minimise the need to take skin grafts from elsewhere on a patient's body - and therefore help them to recover from surgery more quickly.

Surgeon Mr Mani Ragbir
Surgeon Mr Mani Ragbir -Credit:NHS

David said: "When they first told me I may lose my arm, I responded that if that happened, I would not be able to live. I could not imagine a life as an amputee. However, when the tumours returned and the pain so was severe even morphine couldn’t help, I was keen to go ahead.

"The operation was a success and I’ve never looked back or felt sorry for myself. In fact, just a month afterwards, I was planning six-months on holiday, popping back only to attend hospital appointments and do my washing!"

He explained how the operation had left him with a surprising relic of past decisions - a tattoo he had regretted for more than forty years. David added; “When I was 13, I had a tattoo on my left forearm. Years later, I was fed up with it and underwent laser surgery, getting rid of all of it but a blob. I was happy that at least the amputation would finally rid me of the tattoo, but due to the spare parts principle the blob is, in fact, now on my shoulder!”

Mr Ragbir -who is president of the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons, said: "David was a prime candidate for the technique, undergoing a fairly complex procedure. Recovery limited to a single wound rather than multiple meant that David was able to return to daily life more quickly, establishing a new normality. David is an inspiration, and we wish him all the best for the future."

Dr Teelucksingh added: "Our research sheds light on the effectiveness of utilising the spare parts principle in sarcoma reconstruction, particularly in cases where preserving the limb through conventional means is challenging. By salvaging and repurposing tissues that would typically be discarded, we can enhance functional outcomes and minimise donor site morbidity for patients."