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Published: Wednesday, 3/17/2010

Pennsylvanian becomes trailblazer in hand transplants

BY MARK ROTH
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE
Chris Pollock, 41, who lost his hands in a corn picker at a friend's farm in 2008, is the nation's first recipient of an above-the-elbow hand transplant. Chris Pollock, 41, who lost his hands in a corn picker at a friend's farm in 2008, is the nation's first recipient of an above-the-elbow hand transplant.
BOB DONALDSON / PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE Enlarge

When Chris Pollock was trapped alone in a farm field two years ago, his hands caught in a grinding, mechanized corn picker, "I asked God three times to let me die."

Today, with new hands attached to his body, that despair is just a memory, and he looks forward to the next phase of his path-breaking life.

On Feb. 5, Mr. Pollock, a 41-year-old resident of central Pennsylvania, became the third person to receive a hand transplant at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the second to get a double hand transplant, and the first in the nation to have one of the limbs be attached above the elbow.

This week, in his first interview since the operation, the former Pennsylvania National Guard mechanic was upbeat and at times seemed almost blase about what he had been through.

The day that changed his life - Nov. 28, 2008 - started with a visit to a friend's farm to help him harvest a field of corn.

Around 5:15 p.m., he noticed the wagon was starting to overflow with corn. He left the tractor running, walked back to the ancient corn picker he was using, and tamped another corn stalk into the chute that fed the machine.

"The second time I bumped a stalk into the picker, my coat got caught and pulled my left hand in to the wrist, so I screamed, 'cause it really hurt."

After that shock and intense pain, "it was fight-or-flight to try to get my hand out and so I reached in with my right hand and the same thing happened and it ended up wrapping my coat up right up to about 4 inches below the elbow, and it tore the skin right off."

Thus began his agonizing half-hour trying to get someone to hear his cries for help. Eventually, neighbors showed up, and soon after that, a helicopter.

He was taken into surgery as soon as he arrived at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Over the next week, he underwent three operations. His left hand was amputated above the wrist; his right arm was amputated below the elbow, and skin from his left thigh was used to cover the forearm.

A year later, Mr. Pollock had learned how to use a prosthetic hook on his left arm and was skilled enough with it that he could resume driving.

But when he found out he might be a candidate for a hand transplant, he jumped at the chance.

Once he passed the physical and psychological screening tests, his lead surgeon, Dr. W.P. Andrew Lee, "explained I'd be taking three steps back" on function if he went through a transplant, mainly because it takes months for the nerves in the recipient to grow into the donor's limbs.

For Mr. Pollock, it was a risk worth taking, "because it would mean having feeling again. Just to be able to pick things up without trying to guess how much pressure you're putting on it ... I couldn't crack eggs with the hook."

When hand and arm transplants are done, all the bones, tendons, muscles, and blood vessels of the donor become functional again, but the nerves are dead and must wait for the recipient's nerves to grow back into those channels.

That proceeds at about one inch a month, Dr. Lee said, and so it will be nine months to a year before Mr. Pollock will regain feeling and motor control of his left hand, and up to two years before he will be able to completely manipulate his right elbow, arm and hand.

When Mr. Pollock was evaluated for transplant, doctors told him the tissue at the end of his forearm was too damaged to make good connections to a donor limb, and so he agreed to let them amputate his arm above the elbow.

That actually made the surgery easier technically, Dr. Lee said, because it meant attaching the donor limb to just three major muscles instead of nearly 20 in the forearm, along with fewer nerves and blood vessels.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Mark Roth is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Mark Roth at:

mroth@post-gazette.com

or 412-263-1130.



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