Hand transplant surgeon Dr. Linda Cendales, right, talks about the hand transplant surgery she preformed on Linda Lu, left. A news conference to discuss the March 12 operation was held March 28 at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. (John Bazemore / The Associated Press)
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ATLANTA — Surgeons at Emory University Hospital have successfully transplanted a new left hand onto a 21-year-old woman who lost hers to illness as a child, the first such procedure in Georgia and one that may eventually help soldiers who lose limbs in combat, doctors announced Monday.
College student Linda Lu of Oviedo, Fla., will need months of rehabilitation after receiving her new hand during a March 12 procedure that lasted 19 hours. It replaces a hand she lost as a 1-year-old due to complications from Kawasaki disease, a rare illness that causes inflammation of blood vessels and can ultimately destroy tissue, requiring an amputation. Doctors did not divulge any details about the donor.
"I've already accepted it as my hand since I woke up, but just looking at it sometimes, I can't believe it's there," Lu told reporters during a news conference. "It kind of feels like magic."
Fewer than 15 successful hand transplants have been performed in the United States. The first took place in Louisville, Ky., at the center where Lu's doctor, Linda Cendales, trained. Emory and the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center have started a joint transplant program with funding from the Defense Department. Surgeons said their program may eventually benefit soldiers who suffer severe wounds to their limbs.
The program has already had inquiries from 45 people. Cendales said fewer than 10 of those have been identified as good candidates for a transplant.
"This represents a great success for Emory and for medicine," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who helped secure the funding. "The procedure they have demonstrated will benefit many people including members of our military who have suffered injuries in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere."
One challenge is finding donors who match the complexion, gender and build of the recipients, said Dr. Allan Kirk, who was part of the transplant team.
"The donor is a limiting factor," Kirk said.
Lu received a phone call that a donor limb had been located on March 11, then quickly got on a plane and flew to Atlanta. Cendales said surgeons started by connecting the bone, then connected tendons, nerves, vessels and skin. Lu will have to take drugs to prevent her body's immune system from attacking the transplanted hand.
Lu said she's been told not to expect as much strength in her new hand, which her doctors estimated could last 15 or 20 years. If her recovery progresses as hoped, Cendales said Lu should be able to make a fist, regain sensation to her fingertips and be able to discern temperatures. Lu, who studies information technology, said she hoped her new hand would help her do everyday tasks.
"My primary goal is to be able to type," she said.