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Published The Times - 

Khai Lam Obituary

World-leading orthopaedic surgeon at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital Trust who helped to introduce robotics to spinal operations

Lam enjoying the tennis at Wimbledon. He also loved opera and Liverpool FC

Lam enjoying the tennis at Wimbledon. He also loved opera and Liverpool FC

The young man was not wearing a seatbelt when he was involved in a high-speed car crash in a Middle Eastern country four years ago. Paramedics found that not only had he broken his neck, his head was hanging off.

For Khai Lam, a charismatic orthopaedic spinal surgeon, it was just another challenge. The patient was sedated, immobilised and flown to London, where Lam spent several hours reattaching his head while a neurosurgeon reconnected the man’s nerves.

Lam thrived on tackling the seemingly impossible. Scoliosis patients, whose vertebrae form a curved line instead of being straight, were a speciality. “He treated patients who others wouldn’t touch,” said one colleague. For those with acute sciatica and other back pain, he gave hope.

A steady hand was essential. Lam described operating on a patient with a compressed disc in his neck. “I first made a horizontal cut to the front of his neck. This was to minimise the risk of damaging his spinal cord,” he said of the procedure, which took more than an hour. “As I proceeded, I also pushed aside the little nerve that goes to the voice-box to avoid damaging it. When I found the damaged disc, it was clearly bulging out of place. Using a fine metal knife, I began to chip away at it. I was careful not to accidentally touch the spinal cord, which lies only millimetres away.”

He helped to develop a minimally invasive pedicle screw system used to hold together elements of the spine. His most recent work was on the Excelsius GPS spinal robot, which acts a bit like a sat-nav enabling the surgeon to pinpoint exactly where to place the surgical screws. He was thought to have been the first person in Britain to use it in surgery.

“It is also quicker,” he explained. “It allows me to insert a screw in three minutes. Without the robotic assistance, the same procedure would take ten minutes. There is less pain, less anaesthetic. Recovery with open surgery would be three months. Now 95 per cent of my patients are back at work in two weeks. They can start physio too because the fixing is more stable.”

Perhaps inevitably not every procedure was considered a success. In October the family of Jessye Norman, the opera singer who died in 2019, said they were suing Lam and an anaesthetist colleague after surgery at London Bridge Hospital four years earlier that allegedly left the soprano “effectively paralysed from the waist downwards”. Lam, his colleague and HCA, which owns London Bridge Hospital, denied the allegations and insisted that they would defend the action.

Khai Sing Lam was born in Selangor, Malaysia, in 1966, the second of three sons of Lam Khuan Loon, who trained as an otolaryngologic surgeon in India and was co-founder of the Pantai Hospital in Kuala Lumpur, the first private hospital in Malaysia. His mother, Alice Cheong Lye Fong, a surgical nurse from Singapore, survives him.

He was educated in Kuala Lumpur at St John’s Institute, founded by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, and from the age of 11 attended The Leys School in Cambridge, enjoying athletics and captaining the badminton and rugby teams. After studying medicine at the University of Nottingham he completed his orthopaedic and spinal training at the Centre for Spinal Surgery and Studies in Nottingham, where he is credited with introducing laparoscopic spinal surgery in the late 1990s. In 2004 he was appointed consultant orthopaedic and spinal surgeon at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust in London. After 14 years he left the NHS for the private sector. By some estimates he treated more than 13,000 patients during his career.

Lam, who is survived by Tom Brady, his American partner, was an enthusiastic supporter of Liverpool FC and the proud owner of a shirt signed by Steven Gerrard, who added the words: “The world’s best surgeon.” He drove in Ferrari rallies and was passionate about opera, especially Wagner.

While Lam was always keen to push the boundaries of technology, he was quick to reassure patients that humans remain in control, at least for now.

Khai Lam, orthopaedic spinal surgeon, was born on August 31, 1966. He died from post-Covid pulmonary inflammation on December 13, 2021, aged 55