In a medical first, Philadelphia doctors have transplanted donor hands and forearms to an eight-year-old boy who had his own amputated five years ago.
Zion Harvey told NBC News that the groundbreaking 10-hour operation performed at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia was a dream come true. He’s looking forward to holding his little sister the most.
“My favorite thing [will be to] wait for her to run into my hands as I pick her up and spin her around,” he said.
When his mother, Pattie Ray, saw him being wheeled out of the operating room, it was like a new start for her son.
“When I saw Zion’s hands for the first time after the operation I just felt like he was being reborn,” she said. “I see my son in the light I haven’t seen him in five years. It was like having a newborn. It was a very joyous moment for me. I was happy for him.”
Dr. L. Scott Levin ran the 40-person transplant team, who had practiced on cadavers before attempting the worldwide-first operation.
“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,” Levin said in a statement.
Life-threatening bacteria caused Harvey to lose his hands, feet, and a kidney when he was two. Because he was already taking immunosuppressant drugs to stop his body from rejecting his kidney transplant, he was an ideal candidate for another type of transplant.
Levin was impressed with the courageous boy’s spirit and resilience.
“When I first met him, I said to him, ‘Why do you want hands, Zion?’ And he said ‘cause I want to swing on the monkey bars.’ That’s a pretty logical answer for an 8-year-old. And a pretty profound statement to me.”
Harvey hasn’t been slowed down, who loves running on his prosthetics and playing video games. While he’s playing the cards life’s dealt him, he’s always secretly wished he’d have hands again one day.
“I hoped for somebody to ask me do I want a hand transplant and it came true,” he told NBC News.
During the surgery, the donor’s hands and forearms were attached by connecting bone, blood vessels, nerves, muscles, tendons and skin.
“That hand was now alive,” he said. “That became, instantly, part of Zion’s circulation, no different than my hand or your hand.”
The doctors a part of the operation feel this may have profound changes on the lives of children who are living without hands. Pediatric surgery is very different; not only do toddlers have smaller bones and anatomical structures, they still have a lot of growing to do. Violating or injuring growth plates during a transplant will result in stunting the hand’s growth.