Transplant Recipient Sees Potential for Wounded Warriors

By Air Force Staff Sgt. Vanessa Young

Special to American Forces Press Service

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas, March 3, 2010 – The recipient of the first hand transplant performed in a Defense Department facility said today she hopes her surgery provides hope for servicemembers wounded in combat.

A team of military and civilian doctors performs the first U.S. female hand transplant Feb. 17, 2010, at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Retired Master Sgt. Janet McWilliams is the 10th person to undergo this procedure and the first to have it done in a Defense Department facility

Two weeks after the surgery, McWilliams has experienced movement in her thumb and fingers, Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Dmitry Tuder, chief of hand and upper extremity service at Wilford Hall and part of the transplantation team, said at a news conference today. However, he added, it will take at least six months for her to regain any feeling in her new hand.

The transplant, Williams said, is a significant occasion not only for her, but also for wounded warriors.

“I am hoping that I can open the door for other wounded warriors who are coming back from Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of the world who’ve lost hands [or] arms,” she said.

Almost nine years ago, the former first sergeant of the 342nd Training Squadron here lost her left hand and suffered severe injuries to her right hand when a package bomb exploded in her office. After years of surgical reconstruction and failed attempts to find a suitable prosthesis for her left arm, doctors asked McWilliams if she was willing to be put on a waiting list for a hand transplant.

Having undergone more than 25 surgeries, McWilliams said, she immediately consented. On Feb. 16, a hand donor was identified.

“I received a gift, a hand,” she said. “In the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to have a hand. This wonderful family gave me that gift. I’m so honored to have this hand.”

A hand transplant involves more variables than an organ transplant, said Dr. Joe Nespral, director of clinical services at the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance. Selecting a donor for a hand transplant recipient involves additional emphasis on matching skin-tone color, gender and the size of the hand, he explained.

When she’s in the hospital, McWilliams dons a hospital gown with her first sergeant rank insignia and the patches of her former units. She said she hopes the news of this procedure gives wounded warriors another choice and helps them decide if this type of procedure is for them.

To date, no active-duty servicemembers have undergone this procedure, said Army Col. (Dr.) James Ficke, chairman of the Wilford Hall and Brooke Army Medical Center integrated departments of orthopedics and rehabilitation. About 50 wounded warriors have an injury that may be eligible for this type of procedure, he said. A former Marine has received a hand transplant, but his procedure was done at a civilian facility.

McWilliams faces months of occupational therapy, and in a years’ time, Tuder said, he hopes she will have enough function to perform daily activities.

“The journey is going to be rough; it’s not going to be easy,” McWilliams said. “There’s nothing you can’t do in life. ‘No,’ is not part of my vocabulary. This beautiful hand will certainly become a part of my body. Now, after all these years, I can finally wear that engagement ring again and my wedding band. It is just absolutely priceless.”

(Air Force Staff Sgt. Vanessa Young serves at Defense Media Activity San Antonio.)

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