Local woman on hand transplant list

January 29, 2009 8:43:15 PM PST
A 25-year-old South jersey woman is waiting for a phone call that could change her life and make her a part of medical history. She could become the first woman in the world to get a hand transplant. Four years ago, when she lived in West Virginia, Jessica Arrigo was playing pool with her dad, when suddenly, the room started spinning. "All of a sudden, I got sick. It happened literally within 15 seconds," she said.

The culprit was probably a common stomach virus. But it got into Jessica's bloodstream and caused a massive infection. She was pushed to the brink of death at a Pittsburgh hospital.

"You pray, and you hope, and you put all your faith in the doctors," her father Wayne Arrigo said.

The doctors were able to save her life but not all of her limbs. Still today, four years later with prosthetics for her feet but not her hands, Jessica calls her life normal. "I can't tie my shoes, or put my hair up, or run. Other than that, things are the same," she said.

Her dad calls it remarkable. "She got back to the gym, and started exercising, she went skydiving, and she went on the 3-day cancer walk in Philly a couple of years ago," he said.

Still, when one of her Pittsburgh doctors called, saying he was starting a hand transplant program, Jessica jumped at the opportunity to try for a right hand transplant. She's now one of two people awaiting the first transplant there.

"Out of all the people that have had accidents, trauma, and lost limbs, I didn't figure they were going to pick me," Jessica said. But she is now waiting for a call. As soon as doctors find a donor who matches her blood type,hand size,health, race, age, gender, and skin tone, then she'll go in for the transplant.

Matthew Scott, also of New Jersey, understands both the excitement and the challenges that lie ahead for Jessica. He's the director of Virtua's College of Paramedic Science, but he's also a former patient.

10 years ago last week, Matt received the world's first *successful hand transplant, at a hospital in Kentucky. He said Jessica has to be ready for grueling work.

"I knew that I was going to need physical therapy. But I didn't anticipate it was going to last as long as it did. Mine lasted for five years," Scott said. He also added Jessica will likely face at least one rejection episode. He's had three but none in the last nine years.

Still Matt said despite the challenges, the transplant was worth it. "I'm able to get back to the things fathers want to do with their sons," he said talking about playing catch with his son who plays baseball.

Jessica believes the new hand will make life a bit easier. "So I can carry a cup of coffee one-handed out of Wawa," she said. And she won't have to wear her engagement ring on a necklace.

Jessica and her fiance Rob have put their wedding on hold till after the transplant. Now she's waiting for the phone call from Pittsburgh.

"Sometimes I wake up in the middle

When that call comes, Jessica will call an "angel flight pilot"- a volunteer pilot. She'll leave right from Millville Airport which is about a mile from her home.

The Pittsburgh program will follow a new protocol to prevent transplant rejection. They'll limit the number of medications she'll have to take by using antibodies and bone marrow from the donor.

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