Life with a new right hand -California’s first such transplant patient describes her journey

Emily Fennell, 26, became the first person in California to undergo a hand… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles Times)April 19, 2011|Shari RoanWhen Emily Fennell walks into a store or the hair salon, people often ask, “What happened to your hand?” She gets a kick out of their reaction when she casually replies, “I had a hand transplant.”

“They say, ‘Can they really do that?’ ” she said, glancing down at the soft brace that covers her right forearm and wrist, slender fingers and neatly trimmed fingernails peeking from the bottom.

On March 5, Fennell became the first person to undergo a hand transplant in California and the 13th nationwide to have the revolutionary surgery. At the time, the 26-year-old single mother from Yuba City wished to remain anonymous. Now, six weeks after the 14-hour operation at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, she is talking about her journey.

With long, straight hair and fashionable boots, she could pass for just another UCLA student who fell off her skateboard. But it was a car accident almost five years ago that took her right hand.

“It’s crazy how good it looks,” she said at her occupational therapy session one morning last week at UCLA, where she spends about eight hours a day working on learning how to move her new hand and fingers. “I knew the match wouldn’t be perfect, but if you didn’t know what happened, you’d think I just had some kind of orthopedic surgery.”

On June 11, 2006, Fennell was a passenger in the front seat of a car that was clipped by another vehicle and rolled over. The sunroof was open. Fennell’s hand went through the space and was caught between the car and the road. The mangled hand had to be amputated.

“About a week after the accident, my mom said, ‘You can be the kind of person who says ‘Woe is me’ and gives up, or you can say, ‘This sucks, but I’m moving on.’ I chose that one,” she said.

She learned to use her left hand to write, dress, drive a car and work in an office typing 40 words per minute. When she received a prosthetic arm six months after the accident, she had already mastered many tasks with her left hand and, after months of trying, concluded that the prosthesis wasn’t helping.

But she wanted to be able to do more for herself and her daughter, now 6. She heard about hand transplants last year from a friend who was also an amputee, and immediately began researching the surgery.

She was evaluated at UCLA and accepted into its newly formed transplant program to wait for a suitable donor hand to become available.
The complex operation required surgeons to attach 23 tendons, two bones, two arteries and at least three nerves, explains Dr. Kodi Azari, the surgical director of UCLA’s hand transplant program. In the video, he describes his delight upon examining the donor hand and realizing it was a match for Fennell.

“It was identical,” Azari says. “The color match was perfect. The size match was perfect. The blood group match was perfect.”

After the surgery, she works on her physical therapy, including an exercise stacking blocks. Eventually, she’d like to be able to put her long brown hair into a ponytail and complete other routine tasks as if they were second nature.

“That’s my goal – to just be able to function with it and not be able to think about it,” Fennell says.

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