US surgeons have performed the first ever bilateral hand transplant on a child, successfully transplanting two donor hands and forearms onto an eight-year-old boy.
Doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia said the surgery, which took place earlier this month, is a breakthrough that will open the door to an expanded use of transplant surgery for children.
Dr L. Scott Levin led the 11-hour operation at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which involved 40 doctors, nurses and specialists.
“It’s a huge step in the world of transplantation in paediatric surgery, in this relatively new field called vascularized composite allotransplant, which is the transplant of hands and in other cases faces,” he said.
“And it’s a huge step forward in the movement of reconstructive surgery and now what we call restorative surgery.”
Unveiling the results of the surgery this week, the patient Zion Harvey greeted the media with his forearms still heavily bandaged, but smiling and waving his new hands.
He demonstrated his still-delicate grip for the cameras and described waking up with new hands as “weird at first, but then good”.
The medical teams used steel plates and screws to attach the old bones to the new before painstakingly connecting Zion’s arteries, veins, muscles, tendons and nerves to donor hands.
The Baltimore boy lost both his hands and feet due to an infectious disease when he was two-years-old.
He had already received a successful kidney transplant, donated by his mother. The drugs he was receiving to help his body accept the kidney made him a prime candidate for the hand transplant.
But Zion said he wouldn’t have been upset if the surgery hadn’t of worked.
“It wouldn’t matter to me because I have supporting family, supporting cousins, supporting grandparents,” he said.
“So if it didn’t go well I would have my family to go back on.”
The first hand transplant was performed in France in 1998, and the first such transplant in the United States was completed a year later.
Multiple limb transplants have been successfully performed on adults, but the same operation on child-sized blood vessels, tissue and nerves is a much more complex procedure.
Zion’s mother Pattie Ray said the surgery was her son’s decision.
“I was the mother and I had the role of meeting with these guys and going over all of the risk and all of the possibilities,” she said.
“And after checking it, it was no more of a risk than a kidney transplant. So I felt like I was willing to take that risk for him if he wanted it.”
Doctors have deemed the operation a success, but it may take up to eight months for the nerves in Zion’s new fingers to regenerate and allow him proper use of his hands.
He currently has physical therapy several times a day, and will have to take immuno-suppressant medication for life to stop his body from rejecting his new hands.
But Zion says he’s determined to reach his dreams of one day throwing a football.