World’s First Double-Hand Transplant Performed on 8-Year-Old in Philadelphia

So apparently science can now basically make miracles happen.

Eight-year-old Zion Harvey of Baltimore has become the first child in the world to receive a double hand transplant. Until now, no child had ever received a transplant of a single hand, let alone two.

Yesterday afternoon, a team from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania announced its early-July surgical masterpiece.


Of course, it was no small undertaking, and was the result of 18 months of planning. The “composite” tissue transplants involve reattaching blood vessels, nerves, bones, muscles, and skin.

“For those of you who are familiar with the book about Apollo 13, Failure Is Not an Option, that’s how our team approached this transplant,” said transplant team leader L. Scott Levin, who established Penn’s hand-transplant program and expanded it to Children’s, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

To date, there are only about 60 people worldwide who have undergone upper-extremity transplants since the first one in France in 1998. They remain rare because they are not considered lifesaving. To prevent rejection, patients must take immune-suppressing drugs for the rest of their lives. The drugs raise their risks of infection, some cancer, and other side effects.

In Zion’s case, he was already taking antirejection drugs to protect a kidney transplant (poor guy) that he received from his mother when he was four-years-old. That made him a perfect candidate for Penn’s hand-transplant program.

When he was just two-years-old, a life-threatening bloodstream infection resulted in the amputation of his hands and feet, and destroyed his kidneys.

In April, Zion was placed on a waiting list for hands. He was told the wait could take a few years. After all, only a tiny number of children of the appropriate race, age, and sex become donors each year, according to federal organ-sharing data. But just three months later, Zion underwent the 11-hour marathon surgery.

The undertaking involved two-dozen surgeons, nurses, and anesthesiologists and required four separate simultaneously-working surgical teams – two for the donor hands and two for Zion. The forearm bones were connected via steel plates and screws, while the arteries and veins were sewn together with a thread thinner than a strand of human hair. Once the blood flow was re-established, each muscle and tendon was re-attached, followed by the nerves.

Zion’s journey is the subject of a documentary video (see below), in which the little boy talks candidly about his condition. You may want to grab a box of tissues before you watch it though. When asked about the upcoming transplant, the boy says: “When I get these hands, I will be proud of what hands I get. And if it gets messed up . . . I don’t care because I have my family.”

According to his doctors, he is quite the remarkable second-grader.

“His maturity is way beyond his age, as is his insight and sensitivity,” Levin told The Inquirer. “He’s brilliant, not just smart. And his stoicism has been remarkable. I’ve never seen him cry, complain of pain, or be withdrawn.”

Prior to the surgery, Zion had adapted well to life without hands, and had learned to eat, write, and even play video games.

Zion now faces months of physical rehabilitation in his recovery. He now wears custom-molded splints to protect his wrists and fingers while he learns to use his new hands. The hands will continue to grow with him as the growth plates produce new bone and tissue.

While his wrists should be free within the next few months, restoring the feeling could take up to two years.