LOS ANGELES, Calif.–For nearly five years, Emily Fennell lived with one hand, due to a traffic accident that mangled her right hand so badly it had to be amputated.
But today, the 26-year-old Yuba City woman is a medical pioneer–the first person in the western United States to undergo a hand transplant.
“I can’t actually feel it yet,” Fennell told reporters at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where she showed off her newest bit of anatomy. “I won’t have sensation for close to a year, but it’s, right now, it all seems surreal that I didn’t have a hand for all those years.”
Fennell underwent the 14-hour transplant operation March 5, and she still has a long road ahead in terms of therapy and monitoring. Although she was discharged from the hospital April 8, she expects to stay nearby for about two more months for treatment. She will have to continue regular therapy for at least the next year to ensure her body and brain accept the hand–since she is now using muscles she hasn’t used in five years.
But surgeons say she is making tremendous progress, both physically and psychologically.
“She is making the emotional transition from calling it ‘the’ hand to ‘my’ hand,” according to Dr. Kori Azari, surgical director of the UCLA Hand Transplantation Program. “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.”
For Fennell, the true test came a few days ago when she was able to visit her daughter.
“My daughter is 6, she’s in kindergarten, and she has been able to touch it,” Fennell said. “I was able to go home last weekend and visit her, and in her 6-year-old world, she doesn’t have more adequate language to describe it, but she says, ‘Mommy it’s cool.’
“It was incredible for me. I had my accident when she was only 14 months old so she’s never known me with two hands,” Fennell said. “So for her to think that this is cool and for her to be supportive of the decision that I’ve made is very important to me.”
Fennell was right-handed before the accident, so she had to learn through therapy to use her left hand for everything. She tried other types of prosthesis, but none of them worked the way she wanted.
Eventually, she applied to become a candidate for the UCLA transplant program.
“Why Emily became a candidate in my opinion was I felt early on that if I told her you can’t do something, she was gonna prove me wrong,” Azari said. “And that’s the exact type of determination we need for somebody to be a pioneer in medicine. Emily is a pioneer.”
She was placed on a waiting list in February and was told to prepare to wait. But she only had to wait about two weeks before a donor hand became available, thanks to the family of a deceased San Diego woman.
“I cannot thank my donor enough for this amazing gift,” Fennell said.
“It’s helping me feel whole again, and I intend to use it to the fullest.”
UCLA is the fourth center in the nation to perform a hand transplant, and the first west of the Rockies, according to the university. Fennell’s was the 13th of 14 hand-transplant surgeries performed in the United States.