An Icelandic man who got the world’s first double-shoulder-and-arm transplant is recovering well after the operation, two decades after the accident that cost him both limbs, doctors have said.
They said it was still uncertain how much mobility Felix Gretarsson, 48, will recover following the operation earlier this month in the southeastern French city of Lyon.
But “giving a little to somebody who was missing so much, that’s already a lot” Aram Gazarian, the lead surgeon in the operation, told a news conference on Friday.
“If he can recover the possibility to actively bend his elbow, that would be a life-changer,” he said.
On 12 January, 1998, Gretarsson, an electrician, was working on a high-voltage power line when an 11,000-volt surge burned his hands and flung him to the icy ground.
He sustained multiple fractures and internal injuries, and went into a three-month coma during which surgeons amputated both arms.
He underwent several more operations, including a liver transplant.
When hand transplant pioneer Jean-Michel Dubernard, based in Lyon, visited Reykjavik for a conference, Gretarsson asked him whether it would be possible to replace the lost limbs.
The operation was “his biggest dream”, Gretarsson’s wife Sylwia told Friday’s news conference, adding that she herself never felt that the operation was truly necessary as he “wasn’t missing anything”.
It took years to find suitable donors, during which some 50 medical staff in total became involved in the preparations for the operation.
Four surgical teams were involved to minimise the transition time between donor and recipient.
Doctors said the outlook for the right arm to become functional was better than for the left, which had also required a complete rebuild of the shoulder. No serious complications had been detected nine days after the operation, they said.
The patient was a long way from being able to move his arms, but seemed visibly pleased with the outcome in a short video shot at his hospital bed and shown at the news conference.
“With this level of amputation, we can’t promise anything,” said Lionel Badet, the surgeon who launched the medical protocol for the operation in 2010. Gretarsson has years of re-education ahead of him, he said, “but we will support him all his life”.