Four years ago, by all accounts, Boston resident Will Lautzenheiser, 41, was following the plan he had set out for himself early in his life.
He was pursuing a career in film-making and academia. After several years of teaching film at Boston University, he had just landed a dream job as a film professor at Montana State University. He had also found love in a serious relationship. However, in the fall of 2011, his life irrevocably changed in the course of a week: An aggressive streptococcus infection led to necrotizing fasciitis and rendered all four of his limbs essentially dead. Doctors were forced to amputate.
When Lautzenheiser found himself with no choice but to begin his life living as a quadruple amputee, he says he realized the best and only thing he could do was accept it: “I'm not going get my arms back. I'm not going get my legs back. This happened. I have to figure it out. And, really, the motto became, 'Figure it out.'”
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Part of "figuring it out" for Will meant stand-up comedy. His approach to humor was rooted in the idea that he didn't want to be viewed as an object of pity.
On the contrary, Will highlighted just how "absurd" he was as a man with no arms and no legs, and many of his jokes were built on puns. After trying out his jokes on nurses and doctors throughout his recovery, Lautzenheiser made his stand-up debut at a Boston comedy club in December of 2012, making sure to put his "best foot forward," as he described it.
Will learned about the possibility of arm transplantation not long after he lost his limbs, but it came with its own set of complications. A transplant of this kind would most likely require a lifetime of taking immuno-suppressant drugs, inviting a host of unwanted side effects.
There was also the idea that accepting, and even embracing, his stumps allowed Lautzenheiser to become quite adept at navigating everyday life. It took him months and months of tireless effort to become proficient at daily tasks. If he were fitted with new arms and hands, Lautzenheiser would have to relearn many of things he already spent seemingly endless days and weeks training to do with his amputations.
But after clearing a series of tests and exams over the course of a year, Lautzenheiser decided to go ahead with the nine hour double arm transplant procedure at Brigham and Women’s hospital in October of 2014.
The donor and his family wanted to maintain anonymity, but they shared a statement through the New England Organ Bank after the transplant:
"Our son gave the best hugs. We pray that you make a wonderful recovery and that your loved ones will be able to enjoy your warm embrace."
Learning how to use his new limbs is complicated by the fact that the nerves from his own arms have to grow into his new limbs, all the way down to his fingertips. This growth is painstakingly slow, but over the months since his surgery he has regained considerable motion and sensation. He can point his fingers and brush his teeth, and recently regained sensation allowing him to feel things he'd long forgotten:
"I'm experiencing those things again completely freshly. Every day strikes me as a surprise. In that I feel a drop of rain. And before I might have thought, 'Oh, get me out of this rain.' And now I think, 'I want to feel that again, this incredible sensation.'"
Meghan Frank is a producer with NBC News.
George Itzhak is a Digital Associate Producer at "Nightly News with Lester Holt"