We can stop daydreaming about futuristic and advanced technology because, without a doubt, the future of civilization is right now. Want some proof? Well just this week, doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia successfully completed a double hand transplant on an 8-year-old boy named Zion Harvey — the youngest person in the world to undergo such a surgery. Prosthetics are one thing, but a full-blown transplant of a real human hand? That’s nuts.
Over the course of an incredibly complicated 10-hour operation, a group of 40 doctors (ranging from plastic, reconstructive, and orthopedic surgeons to anesthesiologists and radiologists) helped pull off the tricky surgery. After first securing the bone of the transplant to the boy, the surgeons then attached the veins to allow blood to begin circulating through the hand. Once blood began flowing, each muscle, nerve, and tendon was then meticulously attached.
It was an amazing procedure, but arguably the the most amazing part of the surgery was how stoic Harvey remained the entire time. “I’ve never seen a tear, never an untoward face, never a complaint,” Dr. L. Scott Levin told NBC News. “He was always positive. And that, in and of itself, is remarkable.”
As a toddler, Harvey had to have his hands and feet amputated — and also required a kidney transplant — as the result of a life-threatening disease called sepsis. After receiving prosthetics for his legs, he soon learned how to feed himself and play video games without the use of his hands. But despite how resilient and courageous Harvey was after overcoming sepsis, he still longed for a day when he could swing on monkey bars and hold his younger sister with his very own hands. Due to the fact he remained on a steady schedule of taking immunosuppressant drugs (which help his body avoid rejection of the new kidney) the doctors felt Harvey was a prime candidate to undergo the risky hand transplant.
“The issue with children is they have areas of bone called growth plates,” says Levin. “We had had to be very careful when we attached the donor hands to Zion that we did not violate or injure the growth plates because we want his hands to grow and lengthen.”
Because of the success of Harvey’s surgery, Levin feels confident this success story provides incredible progress towards helping kids of all ages who currently live without hands. The process of training, preparing, and actually performing the surgery has created an incredible foundation for doctors planning this kind of operation in the future, with Levin calling it “the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end.”
For Harvey, this is the beginning of an experience he’s waited two long years for. Now he won’t have to wonder what it’s like to pick up his little sister, climb a set of monkey bars, or use his fingers to play video games. Though there’s still a long road ahead for him (several weeks of hand therapy and a lifetime of medication), it seems certain Harvey will keep handling everything with the same fearlessness, courage, and ear-to-ear grin he’s always had.