The Hands of Faith

As I arrived to meet former chiropractor Dr. Richard Edwards, he opened the door for me and greeted me with a handshake. While it may not be an impressive feat for most, this was impressive, because it came from the nation’s first man to receive a double hand transplant.

Just eight months ago, Edwards underwent an 18-hour surgery at the Jewish Hospital Hand Care Center in Louisville, Kentucky, and received two new hands in an unprecedented double hand
transplant surgery.

The ordeal began on a dry day in February, in 2006. Edwards had just left work and was headed to his cabin for a weekend of hunting. In a Suburban pulling a trailer—both of which were packed with gasoline and propane supplies for the trip—Edwards turned off the road into some brush. When he headed back for the road, he realized his trailer was jack-knifed and he was stuck.

After that, he only remembers bits and pieces.

As he contemplated leaving the trailer behind and coming back for it in the morning, he looked over his shoulder to see the dry brush around him explode into flames. Later, they found out the dry brush must have been set off by the heat from the underside or muffler of his vehicle. There had been a statewide burn ban for 7 months, and the brush went up in the blink of an eye.

Before he could reach to unlock his door, the electrical system in the vehicle had already burnt. As he tried to open the door, all of the windows exploded into pieces.

That was the last thing Edwards remembers. He doesn’t know how he got out of the vehicle, or how he made it through the fire, but in his next waking moments, he was on the road to his cabin, willing himself to continue walking. He and his wife are sure that angels miraculously pulled him from the fire.

Don’t stop. Keep going, he told himself as he made his way to the cabin, even though he wanted to lie down and give up.

In the 10 years he and his friends held the hunting cabin lease, his friends had never been at the cabin so early in the year. This night, miraculously, they were. His friends discovered Edwards and called 911, and a helicopter was sent to fly him to the Integris Burn Center. He had already lapsed into a coma.

Second and third-degree burns covered more than a third of his body. They didn’t think he’d make it. He did.

He grins at me from under a full head of bushy light gray hair. They thought he would lose much of his face, that
he might be blind, that he would lose all his hair. He didn’t.

After being in a coma for 10 days and recovering at the Integris Burn Center for two months, Edwards’ quick recovery astounded doctors and nurses. “You’re in your 50s, and you’re healing like you’re a 16-year-old,” they told him.

Skin grafts from his legs were used to repair the damage to his face, back and eyelids, which were the most severely burned. What he did lose was virtually both of his hands. Burned beyond recognition, his hands lost seven fingers, and the remaining three were useless.

After a year, Edwards began searching for the best hand surgeon he could find to try to reconstruct his damaged hands. But after five surgeries on just his right hand over the span of a year, it was still deformed and dysfunctional. In despair, Edwards and his wife, Cindy, sought a second opinion from a hand specialist at the Jewish Hospital Hand Care Center in Louisville.

While the specialist agreed there was nothing more surgery could do, an idea sparked in Cindy’s mind, and her question stopped him in his tracks. “Didn’t I hear that this hospital performed a hand transplant?” she asked.
Enter Dr. Warren Breidenbach.

The head of the Hand Care Center’s hand transplanting program and leading expert on hand transplanting, Breidenbach was notified immediately. He agreed to evaluate whether Edwards could be a candidate for a double hand transplant.

Usually, hand transplants are reserved for those who have had an amputation. And a double hand transplant had never been done in the United States before. The risk involved meant if the transplant didn’t work, Edwards would be left with no hands, since what hands he had left after the fire would have to be removed to make way for the new hands.

Doctors also warned him that transplant recipients have a shortened lifespan, a lower white blood cell count and are extremely vulnerable to infection. But to the Edwards couple, the chance of having functioning hands again was worth the risk.“ I don’t believe God would have allowed me to get this far,” he says, “if it weren’t going to be successful.”

After many months of extensive testing, Edwards finally was approved to be placed on the donor list. By this time, it had been several years since the fire.

Then, on August 24, 2010, at 7:30 p.m., he got the call: “We have a pair of hands for you.”

The couple immediately flew to Louisville, where Edwards was whisked off into surgery. The 18-hour surgery was conducted by a team of 30 doctors, and was the first surgery in America to ever be tweeted live.

Two days after coming out of surgery, Edwards was able to move all 10 fingers, a feat which astonished the surgeons. “This is not supposed to happen,” said Breidenbach. Usually, it takes months for a hand transplant recipient to even move a finger.

Photos courtesy of Jewish Hospital; Kleinert, Kutz and Associates Hand Care Center; and University of Louisville.

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