NJ mom makes progress after hand transplant

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – November 1, 2010 (WPVI) — Six years after losing her feet and parts of both hands due to an infection, 27-year-old Jessica Arrigo of Millville, New Jersey, is now wasting no time getting used to the new right hand she received in a transplant September 11 at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“I woke up, and there it was!” says Jessica describing the moments after she woke up with the new hand after the 10-hour transplant operation.

After the initial recovery, she started therapy – 4 hours a day – to learn how to make maximum use of the new hand.

The everyday tasks we take for granted are major milestones for Jessica, and other hand transplant patients.

“One of my goals, I’ve already accomplished,” crows Arrigo. “I held a cup of coffee.”

She goes on, ” I’m a big coffee drinker, and I’m allowed one cup a day, and I make sure to take advantage of that, and like hold it with my hands.”

Indeed, when Jessica first got onto the transplant waiting list in early 2009, she told Action News she dreamed of the day she could go into Wawa, and walk out with her coffee in one hand.

Jessica says her new hand, received from a 38-year-old woman from Erie, Pennsylvania, feels much like the one she lost 6 years ago, when an infection sent her into septic shock, and nearly killed her.

“It looks so much like my hand, that it just doesn’t feel foreign,” she offers.

She also lost both feet during that infection, and wears prosthetic feet today.

Jessica is only the second American woman to received a hand transplant, and the first for the transplant team at UPMC. Doctors say it’s because it’s much harder to match the hand size, color, and characteristics between donor and recipient women. In addtion, there are fewer potential donors. Most donors come from trauma incidents, and women are involved in fewer of them.

The transplant is done with 2 teams, working simultaneously in the same operating room. The preparation takes about 3 hours.

When the actual transplant is done, Dr. Joseph Imbriglia, an orthopedic surgeon, says, “The hookups begin by putting the bones together first, then the tendons, then the nerves, then finally, the blood vessels and the skin.”

He describes Jessica as an “ideal patient,” because her arm was transplanted about 2 inches above her wrist. He said that made the transplant easier.

Dr. Joseph Losee, a plastic surgeon who heads the transplant team, says UPMC has done 8 patients in 18 months, and is now screening patients for the center’s first face transplant.

“It’s life-changing medicine. and it allows patients who could not feel their children, or who could not go out in public because of facial deformity a new lease on life,” he says.

Jessica is now working towards her next goal – being able to do every day things with her 11-month-old daughter Cody.

“I really, really want to be able to get Cody dressed, and like do her hair, that’s what I’m really, really looking forward to doing,” she told us.

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