There are few things that highlight the brilliance and importance of science better than the world of biomedicine.
Two years ago, 8-year-old Zion Harvey became the first child in medical history to receive a double hand transplant. Now 10 years old, Zion is able to write, draw, dress himself, swing a baseball bat, catch a football, and do all the things kids love to do.
The radical operation is being hailed as a victory for biomedical science. The doctors behind his surgery have recently released a case report about the procedure, written 18 months on from the operation, in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal.
Zion from Baltimore, Maryland, had his arms and legs amputated at age two after suffering from a life-threatening case of sepsis. Two years after this infection, he also received a kidney transplant from his mother.
His family first visited a host of top doctors at the Philadelphia Shriners Hospital in 2012. They initially discussed fitting him with prosthetic hands, but the doctors had a revolutionary (and certainly riskier) idea: a bilateral hand transplant. Over the following months, he received extensive evaluations to see whether or not his body could cope with the surgery and its aftermath.
Eventually, by July 2015, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia got the green light. The surgery required 40 people, including 10 surgeons, and lasted a grueling 10 hours 40 minutes.
Two years later, the results are quite remarkable.
"The child is more independent and able to complete day-to-day activities," said Sandra Amaral, a doctor at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, according to AFP. "He continues to improve as he undergoes daily therapy to increase his hand function, and psychosocial support to help deal with the ongoing demands of his surgery."
MRI brain scans have also shown that his brain has developed new pathways for his new sensory and motor functions.
Nevertheless, his recovery has been tough both emotionally and physically. His body tried to reject the hands on numerous occasions throughout the first year. Zion still has to take four immunosuppressive drugs to make sure his body doesn’t reject the tissue.
The study authors note that the success of the surgery now proves that these kinds of transplantations are possible under carefully considered circumstances.
“Zion's progress has been spectacular, highlighting what can be accomplished by the committed and coordinated collaborative effort amongst multi-disciplinary teams at CHOP, Penn Medicine and Shriners Hospitals for Children,” Scott Kozin, MD, chief of staff at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Philadelphia, said in a statement last year.
“Zion's remarkable improvement, and his newly found ability to perform tasks previously unobtainable, is inspiring.”