Eight-year-old Zion Harvey lost his hands and feet to an infection when he was two. Now, surgeons at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia have transplanted new hands and forearms onto the boy in the first such operation done on a child.
Hand transplants are still relatively rare because they involve several organs systems that all must be connected, including bones and ligaments, blood vessels, nerves, and skin. In the case of a child like Zion, there was also the difficulty of finding hands from a donor that would match his size and color.
Another factor was that a hand transplant would require Zion to take immune suppression drugs for the rest of his life to prevent his body from rejecting the new hands. However, Zion was already taking immune suppression drugs. The same infection that cost Zion his hands and feet also caused his kidneys to fail and he already had undergone a kidney transplant.
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia worked in conjunction with Shriners Hospitals for Children, to which Zion had been first referred for new prosthetic hands. The surgery took 10 hours and a team of physicians and nurses. The surgeons included specialists in plastic and reconstructive surgery, orthopedic surgery, anesthesiology, and radiology.
However, the surgical team did not know how long it would take to find a matching donor for Zion. As they waited for a match, they practiced the surgical techniques needed on cadavers and developed a game plan for each step of the surgery. When the donor was found, four surgical teams worked simultaneously, with two focused on the donor limbs and two on Zion. The surgery went well, but a circulatory problem immediately developed in one hand and to fix it the incision had to be opened up to remove a clot.
Zion is now in intensive physical therapy to allow him to relearn how to use hands. His first goal is to throw a football.