After a month in The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, eight-year-old Zion Harvey was discharged to go back home to Owings Mills near Baltimore, Maryland. He waved to cameras as he left. And that’s a big deal.
Zion was in the hospital to receive a double hand transplant. He is the youngest patient ever to undergo such a procedure.
It’s rare that doctors attempt limb transplants on children. That’s because any type of transplant requires life-long rejection-suppressing drugs. But Zion was a unique case. He was already required to be on those drugs.
History of Hardships Redeemed
When Zion was just two years old, he contracted a life-threatening infection that spread throughout his body. His arms, legs, feet, and kidneys were all badly damaged. In order to save his life, Zion had to lose both hands, both feet, and both kidneys. Zion’s mother Pattie donated one of her kidneys to keep her son alive. Prosthetic legs gave him movement. But he lived for six years without any hands.
The happy, energetic boy who won hearts by smiling and giggling all through what he called “a bumpy road” to surgery and recovery even learned to eat, write, and play video games without hands. Soon he’ll be mastering such skills with a dexterity he might only have imagined until now.
It was April when Zion was put on a transplant list for new hands. In July, his mother got a call: There were hands for Zion. He had to come to the Children’s Hospital right away for the surgery. It would happen in just a few hours. No details were available about the donor, but the hands did come from another child. That means Zion’s new hands, which are small, will grow as he grows. Someone else’s tragedy was going to restore the effects of Zion’s own hardship.
The Long, Complex Process
Zion was in surgery for 11 hours to receive his new hands. A 40-person medical team worked together. They used steel plates and screws to attach Zion’s forearm bones to the bones of the donated hands. Surgeons then bent over him for hours. They meticulously reconnected arteries and veins first, and then muscles, tendons, and nerves. Because children’s blood vessels are so small, the surgeons had to use techniques called “reconstructive microsurgery.” Some of the best microsurgeons in the world worked on Zion’s little hands.
After surgery, Zion’s arms were bandaged and allowed to heal. He was carefully watched for infection. About two weeks later, he started physical therapy to learn to use his new hands. It began with just moving the fingers, then holding small objects, and later opening and closing fists. He will continue therapy for two years. Beyond that, he will need to be monitored for his entire life to be sure no problems arise from the transplant.
Whenever an organ or body part is transplanted to a patient, the body’s immune system kicks in. It recognizes the transplant as something foreign. The immune system tries to attack the transplant. So immune-suppressing drugs are used to prevent the body from rejecting the new limbs. Because those drugs limit the body’s immune system functions, it means patients can get sick more easily. It also means that illnesses and infections can be more serious. There is also a link between the long-time use of immune-suppressing drugs and cancer later in life. That makes doing a limb transplant for a young child a serious ethical matter to consider. But Zion was already taking anti-rejection drugs because of his donated kidney. He had to have the drugs to keep his kidney, and he had to have the kidney to save his life. All this made him a good child candidate for the ground-breaking hand transplant, his doctors said.
When asked what he hopes to do now that he has two new hands, Zion said that he wants to throw a football. He also wants to swing on the monkey bars. His doctors hope he will be able to do that and much, much more.