By Dr. Maria Simbra

Seven weeks ago, a woman from New Jersey became only the fourth person ever to receive a hand transplant performed by doctors at UPMC.

KDKA’s Health Editor Dr. Maria Simbra got a first look at how she’s doing.

Every new mom needs a hand with lots of things. Jessica Arrigo admits she would have to jostle her daughter around to get her into her pants and shirts. That was without full hands.

But she’s hoping all that will change, now that she’s had a life-changing operation.

“Get her dressed, put on her socks, tie her shoes, I can’t do her hair,” Arrigo says of the challenges she has had.

In 2004, Arrigo lost parts of all of her limbs from complications of a severe infection. Her doctor at that time at UPMC put the idea of a transplant in her head.

“He just said, ‘Five or 10 years down the road, we’re going to have a hand transplant program, would that be something you’d be interested in?’ Of course, I said yes,” she said.

When a new right hand became available, she had to hurry.

“It was 3:30, and they asked us to be out of there by 4:00 to drive up,” she added. “So, it was crazy.”

They made the seven-hour drive from New Jersey seven weeks ago. The surgery took 12 hours and nine surgeons to perform.

“As soon as I remember being awake, I looked over and they were moving; not too much, but enough,” she said. “It felt natural. It didn’t feel foreign. It just felt completely normal, and I was able to move my fingers, which I was really happy about.”

“Postoperatively, she’s had virtually no complications,” said UPMC transplant surgeon, Dr. Joseph Imbriglia.

Now, she’s doing physical and occupational therapy four hours a day.

“Just trying to pick up small objects; a lot of stretching, a whole lot of stretching, starting to do some resistance stuff, trying to pick up pennies, papers, cards,” she said.

Of the four single or double hand transplants done there, Arrigo is the first woman. It’s a harder match from a size and availability standpoint.

“The more you do, the more you learn. I think we are getting better at it. We can do it more rapidly with less blood loss,” said Dr. Imbriglia.

While she’s on a kinder, gentler anti-rejection protocol, a new mom still has to be careful.

“We do advise caution though, when the kid is sick because they are immunosuppressed and might have a higher risk of contracting viral and bacterial illnesses,” said Dr. Vijay Gorantla, a transplant medicine specialist at UPMC.

“Everything that has to do with Cody is my main thing,” says Arrigo. “I want to be able to get her dressed for school, I want to be able to hold her hand and keep her from running out into traffic, be able to grab hold of her. I want to be able to put up her hair. Especially do her hair, that’s my thing, that’s like a mother-daughter thing, doing hair and makeup.”

The most important part of the healing process now is nerve regeneration. Because the attachment point is fairly far down along the arm, this shouldn’t take long.

In six months, the doctors expect better fine movements and sensation. This is based on the experience with similar patients with attachment points at the same place.

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