Lindsay Ess' Story: Getting New Hands

Part 1: After losing her hands and feet to an infection, young woman learns how to adapt.
3:00 | 01/04/13

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Transcript for Lindsay Ess' Story: Getting New Hands
Can you even imagine waking up after doctors removed both hands and both feet? The realization that you suddenly have no idea how to brush your teeth or go out on a date, not to mention start a family or dress a child. A few years ago, a lovely young woman named lindsay experienced just that, but somehow managed to hold on to the dream of somehow being able to touch again. And what happened next is nothing short of incredible. "Nightline" producers spent three years following lindsay's journey. Reporter: It is the simplest thing. The grasp of one hand inside another. But lindsay will never see it that way, for her hands, these, once belonged to someone else. Her story and these hands' story are one in the same. Now. But listen to how that came to be. Growing up, lindsay was always one of the pretty girls. She went to college. She did some modelling and got to work building a career in fashion. And then, she lost her hands. And her feet. Hold it right there, please. Reporter: We first met lindsay three years ago in december of 2009. Hello, lindsay. Hi. Good to see you again. Reporter: In one of her first meetings with this man, dr. Scott levin, a transplant specialist who was willing to try the still rare procedure of giving lindsay new hands, real ones, from a donor. Will I be able to go behind my -- hopefully you'll be doing your hair. Reporter: Here's what happened to lindsay. When she was 24, she had her eye on a career producing fashion shows and had just coverage waited from virginia commonwealth university's well regarded fashion program. You were on your way. Yes. I would say that was my dreams, as far as being an excellent student and well respected, definitely coming true. Reporter: But then she got sick, a blockage in her small intestine from crones disease, an infection that shut down her entire body. To save her life, doctors had to put her in a medically induced coma. When she came out of it a month later still in a haze -- I knew there was something wrong with my hands and feet because I would look down and i would see black, almost like a body that had decomposed. Reporter: The infection had turned her extremities into dead tissue. There was a period of time where they didn't tell me they had to amputate, but somebody from the staff said oh, honey, you know what they're going to do to your hands, right? That was when I knew. Reporter: April 2010. The remarkable thing was seeing lindsay at home in richmond, virginia, and the things that at that point she had learned to do without her hands, like this. And this. And guess what. Yes. This. The most common questions i get are how do you type and how do you text so fast? It's just like chicken pecking. Reporter: The truth was, though, that overnight she had become profoundly disabled. You don't have your hands now. Or my feet. Reporter: Or your feet. What are the challenges? The challenges are independence and lack of control. Reporter: Remember, she had lost her feet also, and getting her prosthetic legs on always required help from her mom judith, who basically had moved back into her daughter's life, back to the kind of care that would have been their connection 20 years earlier. How much do you want them cuffed up? Reporter: Lindsay had discovered a lot of things about herself that she did better emotionally by not focusing on the life that is gone, that she hates needhelp. I can't wait to brush my own hair. I'm an independent person. But then again, I'm also grateful that I have a mother like that. Because what would I do? I want her to be able to, you know, touch me just the way that I touch her. Reporter: She also learned that while she could adjust to the prosthetic legs, the prosthetic arms were just too heavy. These prosthetics are . I can't do anything with them. You can't do anything behind your head. They're heavy. They're made for men. They are claws. They're not feminine whatsoever. Reporter: Besides, she realized so much of our independence, our identity, even, is in our hands. I've accepted the fact that my feet are gone. That's acceptable to me. My hands is not. It's still not. In my dreams, I always have my hands. I wanted to try to get this other knee up. Reporter: December 2010. Over the past year, lindsay had been work out diligently, part of a commitment she made to qualify for a transplant is that she stay in shape. Have you fallen? Yeah, I fall. Reporter: Most of the times if you fall, you want to go like that. What do you do? Essentially I still do the same thing, but I cover my face and just fall on my elbows. Reporter: She is just so tough in these moments, working her body like this. But back in her apartment, she talks about her body again, and what she sees now in a different way. People used to turn and look at me when I walked down the street because of how beautiful I was. Now they turn and look at me because I'm in a wheelchair and I have no hands and feet. Reporter: And what that has told her -- what does it matter what my hair looks like? What does it matter what I'm wearing so much? Reporter: But hands, they matter. Not just as much as before. I try to defy what everybody else says is impossible. They said I wasn't going to live. I lived. They said I wasn't going to walk. I'm going to walk. They said I'm not going to have my hands. I'm going to have my hands. Reporter: Four months later, april 2011, I pay a visit on dr. Scott livan at the university of pennsylvania, who talked about how complex a surgery lindsay had signed on for. Do you have normal sensation here? Uh-huh. The hook-upf the new hand is relying on her nerves growing into the new muscles from the donor. The nerves have to grow into those muscles, which takes months. Can take a year. So she may or may not get truly functioning hands back. We tell patients we can fail you. The operation can fail. Reporter: What's failure? Failure means the part doesn't survive and we have to re-amputate is transplant. That's failure. Reporter: The preferred donor would be female with hands of the right size and a skin color that matched, and part of the wait for those body parts to become available. That s, of everything we discussed, the part lindsay found most difficult, about this unnamed donor that everyone was waiting for. I hate thinking about that. Reporter: Why? Because, I just do. They have to be out there right now alive. Reporter: Because it means that that person would have to die. Uh-huh. I think that whomever it will be, will be carried out with purpose. They're not just going to be used to look pretty. Reporter: September 2011 -- my spirits are pretty good. Waiting for this for a long time. Reporter: After four years without hands or feet and a month on the waiting list, it has finally happened. Someone somewhere has died and her hands are being delivered to dr. Levin, who has also now phoned lindsay, telling her to get from richmond to philadelphia immediately. They have only hours to get this done. When the phone rang, what did he say? There's a donor ready for you. And I think my mom and I -- both jaws dropped. Reporter: There was a lot of prepping to do in a hurry. But lindsay and her mother paused for a moment. The first thing that we did was we prayed for the family who lost their young daughter. Reporter: And then it begins. For the next 11 1/2 hours, the surgery proceeds. A muscle biopsy at this point in time. Reporter: Two separate teams, one dedicated to the left hand, one working on the right. An operation so cutting edge, surgeons have only attempted it 70 or so times in the past 15 years.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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