California Mom to Show Off Her Newly Transplanted Hand

A single mother from California who lost her hand in a car accident almost five years ago will show off her new, donated hand for the first time at a news conference with her doctors.

Emily Fennell from Yuba City underwent a hand transplant on March 5 at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. It took more than 14 hours and a team of nearly 20 surgeons, nurses and support staff to graft a hand from a deceased donor and intricately connect bones, blood vessels, nerves and tendons to Fennell.

The 26-year-old told The Los Angeles Times that she was “ecstatic” when she was accepted into UCLA’s newly formed transplant program.

“I was a little bit nervous, but I don't think I was ever scared,” she said. “I decided the benefits were worth those risks.”

The transplant was the 13th such case in the United States, and the first for the hospital.

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Fennell was able to move her fingers soon after the surgery. She faces several months of rehabilitation and has to take drugs for the rest of her life to prevent rejection.

"It has been surreal to see that I have a hand again, and be able to wiggle my fingers. My 6-year-old daughter has never seen me with a hand," said Fennell, a single mother. "She looked at it, touched it and said it was 'cool,' " Fennell said.

Hand transplantation has come a long way since the first one was carried out in Ecuador in 1964 before the development of modern immunosuppressive therapy. The transplant failed after two weeks and the patient had to have the new hand amputated.

More than three decades later, French doctors in 1998 performed a hand transplant that lasted two years. The recipient did not take medications as ordered, and his body rejected the limb.

Since then, 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.

"It's clear that it's achievable," said Dr. Warren Breidenbach, who performed the historic surgery.
The UCLA operation cost about $800,000, but since it was experimental, Fennell did not have to pay.

"I know it will take time to get there, but my goal is to function like I have two normal hands and not even have to think about it," Fennell said.

A week after the UCLA operation, doctors at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta performed the 14th hand transplant in the country.

The recipient was 21-year-old Linda Lu, who had her left hand amputated as a baby due to complications from a rare disease.

Lu's lead surgeon, Dr. Linda Cendales, said many who undergo a hand transplant tend to feel more sensation than if they wore a prosthetic, and they are able to open doors, tie their shoes or turn the pages of a newspaper.

"They will never have a normal hand," Cendales said. "But they do recover enough sensation to differentiate between temperatures, and rough and smooth surfaces."

Fennell’s surgeons are impressed at how well she is adapting to her new hand.

"The patient's recovery from the procedure has gone extremely well, both psychologically and physically," said Dr. Kodi Azari, surgical director of the UCLA Hand Transplantation Program and an associate professor of orthopaedic surgery and plastic surgery. "She is making the emotional transition from calling it 'the' hand to 'my' hand," Azari said. "From a surgical standpoint, we achieved a good connection of the nerves and blood vessels, and the balance between the palm and back-of-the-hand tendons appears to be pristine."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Click here to read more from The Los Angeles Times.