Double Hand Transplant Patient Relearns How to Hold

After hand transplant surgery, Lindsay Ess had to relearn what hands could do.

ByABC News
January 4, 2013, 1:32 PM

Jan. 5, 2013— -- After receiving a radical double hand transplant surgery, Lindsay Ess had to relearn what her hands could do.

A quadruple amputee, Lindsay lost her hands and feet to a sepsis infection five years ago. The 29-year-old's arms had been amputated just below the elbow, so simple tasks, such as feeding herself, washing her hair and putting on her prosthetic legs, became impossible without help.

After struggling with prosthetic arms, Lindsay exercised diligently for years to qualify for a hand transplant. In September 2011, two separate teams of surgeons at the University of Pennsylvania hospital, one for the right arm and one for the left, worked for nearly 12 hours to perform a cutting-edge operation to give her new hands.

"The first couple of days I refused to look at them," Lindsay said. "It was kind of like one of those scary movie moments. I'm too scared to look because it's reality [but] I'm so grateful to have them that I just don't really think about it superficially."

PHOTOS: Lindsay Ess Gets Two New Hands

In a few months after having surgery, Lindsay made remarkable progress. Her doctors saw she could extend and move her wrists and fingers, begin to sense hot and cold and even pick up lightweight objects ahead of schedule. A tingling sensation bothers her, but that indicates the nerves are growing back.

Although the prognosis for both hands could not have been better, Lindsay suffered setbacks along the way. When it looked like her body might be rejecting the transplants, the former model and aspiring fashion show producer had to have her steroid dose increased. The steroids caused her to gain more than 40 pounds, which she found discouraging.

But her therapy continued and Lindsay grew stronger. The darker pigment in the donor arms faded away and the excess skin and fat placed in her arms to prevent her body from rejecting the transplants was surgically removed.

"I have more muscle in my hand and finger than other people have had at almost 14 months," she said.

Another small sign of success was that her intrinsic muscles, the little muscles that contract and flex the fingers, were working.

"Before I could brush my teeth and it was difficult," she said. "Now I can brush my teeth and it's easy."

But she still had a long way to go.

"I can't do a doorknob quite yet," she said.

Lindsay has at least two more years of daily therapy ahead of her, but she said her situation has inspired her to want to help others with disabilities, including wounded veterans.

"I feel like [my hands] are a gift and they are always going to be a gift," she said. "You can say that they are mine, I mean, they are mine, but they are still a gift."