Quadruple Amputee Gets Two New Hands on Life

Lindsay Ess, 29, lost her limbs to an infection five years ago.

January 03, 2013, 4:34 PM

Jan. 4, 2013— -- It's the simplest thing, the grasp of one hand in another. But Lindsay Ess will never see it that way, because her hands once belonged to someone else.

Growing up in Texas and Virginia, Lindsay, 29, was always one of the pretty girls. She went to college, did some modeling and started building a career in fashion, with an eye on producing fashion shows.

Then she lost her hands and feet.

When she was 24 years old, Lindsay had just graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University's well-regarded fashion program when she developed a blockage in her small intestine from Crohn's Disease. After having surgery to correct the problem, an infection took over and shut down her entire body. To save her life, doctors put her in a medically-induced coma. When she came out of the coma a month later, still in a haze, Lindsay said she knew something was wrong with her hands and feet.

"I would look down and I would see black, almost like a body that had decomposed," she said.

The infection had turned her extremities into dead tissue. Still sedated, Lindsay said she didn't realize what that meant at first.

"There was a period of time where they didn't tell me that they had to amputate, but somebody from the staff said, 'Oh honey, you know what they are going to do to your hands, right?' That's when I knew," she said.

After having her hands and feet amputated, Lindsay adapted. She learned how to drink from a cup, brush her teeth and even text on her cellphone with her arms, which were amputated just below the elbow.

"The most common questions I get are, 'How do you type,'" she said. "It's just like chicken-pecking."

PHOTOS: Lindsay Ess Gets New Hands

Despite her progress, Lindsay said she faced challenges being independent. Her mother, Judith Aronson, basically moved back into her daughter's life to provide basic care, including bathing, dressing and feeding. Having also lost her feet, Lindsay needed her mother to help put on her prosthetic legs.

"I've accepted the fact that my feet are gone, that's acceptable to me," Lindsay said. "My hands [are] not. It's still not. In my dreams I always have my hands."

Through her amputation recovery, Lindsay discovered a lot of things about herself, including that she felt better emotionally by not focusing on the life that was gone and how much she hated needing so much help but that she also truly depends on it.

"I'm such an independent person," she said. "But I'm also grateful that I have a mother like that, because what could I do?"

Lindsay said she found that her prosthetic arms were a struggle.

"These prosthetics are s---," she said. "I can't do anything with them. I can't do anything behind my head. They are heavy. They are made for men. They are claws, they are not feminine whatsoever."

For the next couple of years, Lindsay exercised diligently as part of the commitment she made to qualify for a hand transplant, which required her to be in shape. But the tough young woman now said she saw her body in a different way now.

"People used to turn and look at me when I walked down the street because of how beautiful I was," Lindsay said. "Now they turn and look at me because I'm in a wheelchair and have no hands and feet. The type of person that I was would be the type of person I would hate now. I used to care way too much about what I looked like. What does it matter what my hair looks like? What does it matter what I'm wearing so much?"

Lindsay had to wait for a donor. Dr. Scott Levin, her orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said if was preferable if Lindsay's donor hands were female, and had a size and skin color that matched hers.

Waiting for a donor was the part that Lindsay said she found the most difficult.

"I hate thinking about that," she said. "I think that whoever's hands will be with purpose, not just used to look pretty."

"In Lindsay's case, the hookup of the new hand is relying on her nerves growing into the new muscles from the donor," Levin said. "The nerves have to grow into those muscles, takes months, it can take a year."

And there is still the possibility that the surgery can fail.

"Failure means the part that doesn't survive and we have to re-amputate the transplant," Levin said. "That's failure."

For nearly 12 hours, two separate teams of surgeons, one dedicated to the left hand, the other to the right, worked to perform an operation so cutting-edge that it has been done more than 70 times worldwide in the past 15 years.

After the surgery, Lindsay was in a cocoon of bandages. Levin said the initial signs for recovery were good.

"This is more than we could ever hope for," he said. "Her blood pressure is good, all the parameters related to how to blood flow in and out of her new arms. This is, if you will, a picture perfect course so far."

Less than a month after her surgery, Lindsay was out of the ICU and working on a therapy regime. The skin color of her new hands and arms wasn't exactly the same as her upper arms. They still looked like they belonged to someone else.

"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."

Four months after her surgery, in January 2012, Lindsay's doctors said they continued to be amazed at her recovery. They said they didn't expect her to have fine motion control for another 12 to 18 months, but her muscles were reacting well. She could even pick up lightweight objects.

In February, Lindsey was allowed to go home for the first time since the surgery five months before. Levin said the prognosis for both hands couldn't be better. Even so, rejection was still a huge concern.

Tune into a special edition of "Nightline," "To Hold Again," TONIGHT at 11:35 p.m. ET on ABC to find out what happens to Lindsay and how she moves forward.

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