A Michigan man who lost his right hand in a work-related accident more than 30 years ago became the third successful hand transplant recipient in the United States, doctors said Thursday.
David F. Savage was doing well the day after the surgery at Jewish Hospital in Louisville.
Doctors said the transplant for Savage, 54, presented unusual challenges because of the length of time between losing his hand in a machine press and the surgery. The blood vessels leading to Savage's hand had shrunk because they were not in use, said Dr. Warren Breidenbach, the lead surgeon.
"It's like closing down your house for 32 years, then deciding to go back in and take a shower. You turn it on, it sputters a little bit, then it works," Breidenbach said.
Of the two dozen hand transplant recipients worldwide, Savage may have gone the longest between losing a hand and having a transplant, Breidenbach said. That amount of time creates a "slightly higher risk" of vascular compromise, when blood stops flowing, because the blood vessels used in the transplant were dormant for so long, Breidenbach said.
"If it stops working, we'll go back in there and get it started again," Breidenbach said.
The procedure involved two surgeries and 32 doctors over 16 hours on Wednesday, the day the anonymous donor died.
Savage, of Bay City, Mich., is also serving as a test case for a drug called Campath to ward off rejection. If Savage's body rejects the new hand, it will happen in the first three to six months, doctors said.
Savage first inquired about receiving a hand transplant six years ago — shortly after the nation's first such procedure — and fought his insurance company for three years, Breidenbach said. Then he spent three years on a waiting list for a donor hand.
The first two U.S. hand transplants were also performed at Jewish Hospital, in 1999 and 2001.