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NorCal woman gets successful hand transplant

April 19, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Doctors at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Westwood performed a successful hand surgery on a 26-year-old Yuba City woman.

Tuesday, the patient revealed her new hand and spoke publicly for the first time about her experience.

What's it like having a hand after not having one for five years?

A California single mother says it's simply "surreal." Emily Fennell is the first hand-transplant recipient on the West Coast. UCLA transplant surgeons call her a pioneer.

A one-handed hug is all Emily Fennel's 6-year-old daughter has ever known.

"I had my accident when she was only 14 months old, so she's never known me with two hands," said Fennel.

As the 26-year-old mother tells her story, along with the UCLA Hand Transplantation Team, her slight finger movements seem completely natural.

"I can't actually feel it yet," said Fennell. "I won't have sensation for close to a year, but right now it almost seems surreal that I didn't have a hand for those five years."

In June 2006, she was a passenger in a rollover car accident. Her dominant right hand went through a sunroof and was severed. She was taken to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where surgeons had to amputate.

Five years later, she's there for a different kind of surgery. The 14-hour transplant operation began at midnight on March 4. The precious gift came from a deceased donor in San Diego. She is the 13th successful hand transplant case in the U.S.

More than 40 hand transplants have been performed around the world, including several double hand transplants. The recipient of the first U.S. hand transplant in 1999 has lived with a donor hand for a little over a decade.

"One team surgically exposed our patient's amputated limb, while a few feet away, Dr. Azari and the remainder of his team performed a mirror operation on the donor hand," said Dr. Ronald Busuttil, department of surgery, UCLA Medical Center.

Then a multi-disciplinary team connected bones, veins, arteries, nerves, tendons and skin.

"The hand transplant surgeons put the hand on. The transplant medicine doctors keep it on," said Dr. Kodi Azari, the lead surgeon in the operation.

It's been five years since Fennell used the muscles in her arms to control her hand. Doctors say they've weakened, atrophied and shortened. A critical element to her success will be intensive occupational therapy during her first year.

"So far I can wiggle the fingers and after I'm in hand therapy for a few hours a day, I'm able to pick small objects up with my hand," said Fennell.

Fennell will be on immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of her life. The biggest concern is infection, but so far she's had no signs of problems and her progress has been well ahead of schedule.

Fennell expressed deep gratitude to the donor's family.

Doctors hope to raise awareness for this type of donation. That's because asking families for donor parts that are visible, versus the more traditional requests of internal organs, requires far different protocols.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.