A physician is taking the medical art of transplant surgery to new heights, and more specifically, hands.
Dr. Gerald Brandacher, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center transplant surgeon who headed the nation’s first double hand transplant surgery, spoke at Hillel Academy’s Lunch-time Lectures series Thursday, May 21.
Brandacher, educated in Innsbruck, Austria, had done both single and double hand transplants in Europe before coming to Pittsburgh, what he called the “transplant capital of the world.”
In his speech, only his second public appearance since the surgery, Brandacher gave insight into the history of transplants, and the rapid evolution of the field since the first transplants were done for kidneys in the 1960s.
Hand transplants have been done in Europe since 1988, and the first five in America were performed at the Louisville Jewish Hospital.
He said the double procedure takes just under 12 hours and over 20 highly specialized surgeons to perform. If not covered by the hospital and other contributors, the surgery could cost as much as $1 million.
It will take approximately one year for the nerves and veins to grow into place to make the new hands functional.
Prosthetics are still the preferred method to give people legs, but no prosthetic could ever imitate the delicate movements of a human hand. More importantly, no prosthetic could ever restore a patient’s sense of touch.
The patient in Pittsburgh could not touch his children. Now, thanks to Brandacher’s team, he will be able to.
This is why Brandacher says the procedure is “not life saving, it’s life giving.”
Since this procedure does not save lives, the potential patient must weigh whether having new hands is worth a lifetime of therapy and medication and possible rejection.
In Pittsburgh, major steps are being taken to reduce this risk.
Besides being the first double hand transplant in America, Brandacher talked at length about what else made this operation unique — its pioneering use of what is being called “The Pittsburgh Protocol,” a revolutionary new method of substantially reducing the number of postoperative medications needed by the patient on a daily basis to prevent rejection. Brandacher said the protocol is “opening a whole new field in transplanting.”
He included in his presentation pictures of the procedure and videos of patients using their new hands for tasks considered difficult even for those with their original hands still attached, such as coin tricks.
Listening with rapt attention throughout the lecture, Hillel Academy students then peppered Brandacher with questions, asking if hair and nails grow on the new hands (they do), whether patients can play musical instruments after the surgery (they can, with therapy).
Brandacher seemed impressed with the boys’ enthusiasm, and the lecture soon gained the feel of a small-group discussion.
In a tribute fitting for someone who just performed a double hand transplant, the students gave Brandacher two standing ovations following the talk.
“It was awesome,” said Adam Reinherz, director of student affairs. “The purpose of Lunchtime Lectures is to introduce students to diverse individuals of interest to them.”
Previous speakers from this year fit that description well. They included the head of the Pittsburgh SWAT team, an NBA scout and the head of Bedouin education in Israel, among many others.
(Derek Kwait can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)