Sensations, pain mark hand transplant anniversary

Sensations, pain mark transplant anniversary

The frustration is evident in Jeff Kepner's voice as he talks about his hands a year after they were transplanted onto his body.


In fact, he describes what he can with his hands this way:

"Nothing," he said. "Nothing. Just wiggle the fingers, that's it."

A year ago today, Kepner became the nation's first double hand transplant, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He will head back there in June for another surgery to remove scar tissue from his right arm.

"The muscles seem to be hung up on scar tissue," he said, which is what might be impeding his progress. The ulna bone in his right arm also has not healed yet, so surgeons will remove a plate and put another device in to help it, said his wife, Valarie.

Surgeons had predicted that he would gain more function in his hands after about a year, the time they predicted it would take for nerves from the arm to slowly grow down into the transplanted hands.

There probably is nerve growth because there is some sensation, Jeff Kepner said.

He said he can feel hot or cold; he can feel it when the hands are touched, just not specifically.

"I can feel it, but I don't know where it is," he said. "I can feel the hot and cold in my fingers, but it's not localized."

And there is pain now.

"When they do his biopsies, he now has to have lidocaine because he can feel the biopsies, where he couldn't do that before," Valarie Kepner said. "So they do know that the nerves are growing."

And that is an encouraging sign, she said.

There was a rejection episode in early February, which erupted on the skin and needed to be tended to in Pittsburgh. But since then a special cream takes care of any flare-ups, Jeff Kepner said.

For months now, he has been able to go back to Burns Memorial United Methodist Church and other places.

"We can be out and about now," Valarie Kepner said. "Still if anybody had a cold or flu, obviously we'd stay away from them."

But Jeff Kepner admits he is impatient with the lack of progress.

Before the transplant, in the 10 years after he lost his hands and feet to a bacterial infection, he was very proficient with his prosthetics and could do many tasks himself.

"I could do it all; now I can't do anything," he said. "I can't drive. That's frustrating. I want to get back to driving."

He is learning to eat using special utensils and plate, and "it's not perfect by any means," Valarie Kepner joked.

But he doesn't regret having the surgery.

"I just didn't think it would take this long" to gain function, Jeff Kepner said.

Though the next surgery means three more weeks in Pittsburgh, and all of the expense and inconvenience for the family, it could provide a new start, Valarie Kepner said.

"Hopefully before we leave we'll see or know by removing the scar tissue and everything, that he will see the change in that hand" that they have been looking for, she said.

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How to help

To help the Kepner family with mounting medical bills and to read more about Jeff Kepner's story, go to