In a medical breakthrough and a surgical first, a 40-member team of surgeons, nurses and anesthesiologists successfully attached two hands and forearms to an eight-year old boy who lost his hands when he was just a toddler. The surgery, taking place at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, occurred after the team practiced for months on cadavers. When it was time for the actual surgery, it was like an army going into battle and they were determined to win. Chief surgeon, Dr. L. Scott Levin, told his troops before the operation started that, “We know what we have to do today. I know everybody assembled here has a commitment to this patient and making this a reality for this little boy. We can have complications. We can fail. We can have trouble. But we’re not planning on it.”
The little boy receiving the new hands is Zion Harvey, a child with amazing courage and hope. He told doctors that he wanted hands so that he could swing on the monkey bars and so that he could hold his little sister and swing her in his arms.
The surgery is not the first major hurdle that Zion had to overcome. When he was just two years old, he lost both of his hands and his feet and part of his legs. He suffered a life-threatening bacterial infection that led to not only the amputations, but also to a kidney transplant.
After years of wishing for hands, and over 18 months of observations and evaluations by an array of doctors, the optimistic and fun-loving, little eight-year old received life altering news: he was eligible for a double hand transplant and was placed on a waitlist. Through the Gift of Life Donor Program, he received the call after only a few months on the list that the surgery was going to happen.
Not even the prospect of failure seemed to faze Zion. “When I get these hands, I will be proud of what hands I get, and if it gets messed up, I don’t care because I have my family.”
When the time came, the surgery lasted over 10 hours. The procedure was so complicated that the medical team had to label various anatomical parts with tags. After several hours, Dr. Levin saw signs of success: Zion’s new hand was pink. When doctors pressed his palm, it turned white briefly and then pink again, indicating blood flow in the newly attached hand.
Zion, his family and doctors are thrilled that the surgery was a success, even though he has a long road ahead of him. Zion will be required to take immunosuppressant medication for the rest of his life in order to avoid rejection of his new hands. He also needs to stay at a rehabilitation unit for several weeks where he will undergo rigorous physical therapy before returning to his home in Baltimore. Zion is simply happy the procedure was successful and is taking it all in stride.
The first bilateral hand transplant on an adult occurred in 2011. The foundation that surgeons learned from that procedure as well as developments in pediatric surgery allowed the medical team to take the next step by performing the surgery on Zion. Dr. Levin hopes that Zion’s surgery is just the beginning for what they can do for other children hoping to have their hands restored.