Meet Emily Fennell, the 26-year-old California woman who became the first person in the western United States to receive a hand transplant.
Fennell’s surgery and rehabilitation at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center were detailed in the Los Angeles Times Tuesday by health writer Shari Roan. Now UCLA has posted a video featuring the single mother from Yuba City and her unusual medical journey.
As Roan describes, Emily lost her right hand nearly five years ago in a automobile accident: “Fennell was a passenger in the front seat of a car that was clipped by another vehicle and rolled over. The sunroof was open. Fennell’s hand went through the space and was caught between the car and the road. The mangled hand had to be amputated.”
In the video, Fennell says she thought she’d be forced to spend the rest of her life one-handed.
“Who would’ve thought that, you know, you could get another hand after you’ve lost your hand?” she says. “I definitely never thought that it was a possibility. I thought, ‘This is it.’”
But she was wrong. The video tracks her as she walks into the hospital – pulling her suitcase with her left hand – and later, when she is wheeled into surgery. Some of the video was shot inside the operating room, but none of it is too gruesome. The donor hand is wrapped in a blue towel and plastic bag when it is lifted out of an ice-filled cooler. A computer animation shows how the donor hand and forearm were surgically attached to Fennell.
The complex operation required surgeons to attach 23 tendons, two bones, two arteries and at least three nerves, explains Dr. Kodi Azari, the surgical director of UCLA’s hand transplant program. In the video, he describes his delight upon examining the donor hand and realizing it was a match for Fennell.
“It was identical,” Azari says. “The color match was perfect. The size match was perfect. The blood group match was perfect.”
After the surgery, the video tracks Fennell as she works on her physical therapy, including an exercise stacking blocks. Eventually, she’d like to be able to put her long brown hair into a ponytail and complete other routine tasks as if they were second nature.
“That’s my goal – to just be able to function with it and not be able to think about it,” Fennell says.