Surgeons in the US have successfully transplanted two donor hands onto an eight-year-old boy called Zion Harvey after he’d had them amputated due to a serious infection. This is the first time the procedure has ever been performed on a child, just four years after it was pioneered by the same surgical team on an adult patient.
"I made the decision from a medical standpoint, but ultimately, to have the surgery was Zion’s decision," Zion’s mother Pattie Ray said in an interview with TIME. "He wanted to do what other children can do without so much trouble."
Several years ago, Zion contracted a severe infection of unknown origins, and it necessitated the amputation of both hands and feet, and more recently a kidney transplant. The silver lining when it came to the kidney transplant is that the anti-rejection medication he had to take for it made him a strong candidate for a double hand transplant.
Just three months after he’d been put on the wait-list, a donor came through. The procedure was performed earlier this month by a team at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and surgeons from Penn Medicine.
"Each year, there are only 15 children, based on the databases, that would even be eligible to donate hands," lead surgeon L. Scott Levin, Chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Penn Medicine and Director of the Hand Transplantation Program at CHOP, says in the video below. "And then it comes down to the organ procurement organisations approaching families at a terrible time - the loss of a child. So the fact that he was put on the waiting list for hands in April, and three months later, this came along - that in and of itself is a remarkable story."
The 10-hour surgical procedure was performed by a 40-member team of physicians, nurses, and experts in plastic and reconstructive surgery, orthopaedic surgery, anesthesiology, and radiology. According to Alexandra Sifferlin at TIME, the team was split into four groups on the day, with two tending to Zion’s limbs, and two tending to the donor hands.
The bones in the hands and the limbs were connected first with steel screws and plates before the veins and arteries were linked up. Once the team managed to get the blood flowing from Zion’s limbs to his new hands, they transplanted the nerves, muscles, and tendons.
"This surgery was the result of years of training, followed by months of planning and preparation by a remarkable team," Levin said in a press release. "The success of Penn's first bilateral hand transplant on an adult, performed in 2011, gave us a foundation to adapt the intricate techniques and coordinated plans required to perform this type of complex procedure on a child. CHOP is one of the few places in the world that offer the capabilities necessary to push the limits of medicine to give a child a drastically improved quality of life."
Zion, who has two prosthetic legs, has spent the past few weeks getting used to his new hands, and as you can see in the video below, they look perfect. He’s able to grip things with them already, and is undergoing rigorous hand therapy several times per day to improve function. And something tells me his request for a puppy won’t go unfulfilled for long, because how can you say no to such a brave kid? We wish him all the best.