Penn doctors detail double hand transplant

PHILADELPHIA - November 1, 2011

Today, some of the 30-member team posed for photographers.

A month ago, these same doctors, nurses, and technicians were involved in the complex 11 and a half hour surgery.

"We had a total of 12 surgeons working in 4 teams" says Dr. Benjamin Chang, the co-director of Penn's Hand Transplant program.

Dr. Chang says it was done in 4 steps -

First, the forearm bones were connected with steel plates. Then, arteries and veins were connected. After that, muscles and tendons were stitched together. Finally, the skin was closed.

Getting a match for hand transplants has special considerations.

"The donor has to have the right skin type, the right age, the right gender, the right size for the hands and forearms," says program director Dr. L. Scott Levin.

The same is true for face transplants.

The donor and recipient want to stay anonymous for now. But doctors say she is a woman in her late 20s, who lost her hands and feet to an infection. She is now in a very exclusive club - one of less than half a dozen people who have received bilateral transplants.

Dr. Scott Levin says the recipient is doing amazingly well.

"This person can now hug her loved ones, can now gesture, can brush a tear from her eyes. Not that she'd had many tears, but there are frustrations along the way," he says.

Worries about rejection, and the long hours of rehab to get movement in the transplanted hands can be frustrating.

Jessica Arrigo of Millville, New Jersey, knows that very well. She lost both of her hands and feet to a bloodstream infection, too.

A year after receiving her new hand in an operation at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, she still does regular rehab 2 days a week, 4 to 6 hours at a time.

Without the exercises, she says the hand would be worthless.

But with it, she's fulfilled several dreams.

"I learned how to crochet, which is something I always wanted to do (since prior to losing her hands)," says Jessica.

"I can fly an airplane, which I wasn't able to do before," she says with a smile. She has been taking flying lessons for several months.

And she can hold her daughter, Cody, who turned 2 years old today.

The Penn doctors will be doing more bilateral hand transplants. At least one more person is already on the waiting list, and several others are being evaluated.

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