After about 50 years and more than 100 patients undergoing surgery, doctors have found success with a double hand transplant.
At age 2, Zion Harvey lost both of his hands and feet to sepsis, a sometimes deadly complication of bacterial infections in the body. In 2015, when Harvey was 8 years old, he received two hand transplants from doctors at Penn Medicine and treatment from medical professionals at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Harvey spent over a month in the hospital and countless hours in rehab thereafter.
On Tuesday, two years after the initial transplant, scientists published a paper touting Harvey’s almost miraculous progress.
Before Harvey, “there have been no successful cases” of this transplant reported in children,” according to the study. But “at 18 months [after his surgery], the child had exceeded his previous adapted abilities.”
An emotional video describing Harvey’s transplant shows him using a pair of scissors to cut paper, gripping a whisk and mixing food in a bowl and throwing a basketball.
“Now, I can get myself dressed without anybody helping me,” Harvey, who seems wise beyond his years, says in the video. “Now, I can get a snack out of the refrigerator without anybody helping me.”
“He’s become this independent person that doesn’t need me around all the time. He takes his meds on his own now,” says Pattie Ray, Harvey’s mother, in the “One Year Later” clip. “I’m happy for him.”
How the surgery works
According to the video, surgeons have successfully connected joints, tendons and muscles between the transplanted hands and Harvey’s body.
His movements show that the brain is able to communicate with the hands, which is pretty incredible considering that he hadn’t used this region of his brain for about six years of his life.
The first-ever documented attempt at a hand transplant happened in Ecuador in 1964, but it was considered a failure. At the time, immunosuppressive treatment wasn’t particularly advanced. (Harvey has taken several medications to avoid his body from rejecting the transplant.) Decades later, the first remotely successful human hand transplant happened in France in 1998, but the transplant was later amputated in 2001 because of tissue rejection.
Even Harvey’s operation, though a success, required a lot of brainpower — about 40 medical professionals were involved, and the surgery itself took 10 hours and 40 minutes. If all goes well and his hands continue to grow with his body, as planned, Harvey could be living proof of how human bodies can transform and adapt despite overwhelming hardship.
Already, he is the first child to undergo a double hand transplant, and it seems that he’s making serious progress: A video published Wednesday shows Harvey swinging a baseball bat, supposedly a longstanding dream of his.