The Gift of Hands

 An 8-year-old boy holds a mini football in the palm of his hand, gently squeezing it between thumb and fingers, dreaming of the day he can get out  on the field and throw a pass. It’s an utterly ordinary scenario, except for one  thing: more than a year ago, this child had no hands.

In 2008, at the age of 2, Zion Harvey developed sepsis, a life-threatening  infection that attacked his entire body and eventually required amputation of  both of his hands and his legs below the knee. The infection also damaged  Zion’s kidneys and two years later, he underwent an organ transplant,  receiving a kidney from his mother, Pattie Ray.

Despite this rocky start, in the years that followed Zion grew strong and  healthy.  A happy and outgoing child, he adapted well to life without hands,  learning to eat, write and even play video games with his residual limbs. He figured out ways to perform most of the activities other kids his age could do. (Zion received prosthetics for his feet, and was able to walk, run and jump with complete independence.)

In July 2015, surgeons at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) joined with colleagues from Penn Medicine to complete the world’s first bilateral hand transplant on a child. A team of 12 surgeons and 8 nurses successfully transplanted donor hands and forearms in a 10+ hour surgery and they used a Leica M525 F40 microscope to help with the microsurgical reconstruction of re-attaching nerves and blood vessels. This extremely rare procedure, also known as vascularized composite allotransplantation (VCA), and is performed by only a few surgical teams around the world — and none had performed it in a child. The operation required exceptional expertise in complex microvascular surgery and hand surgery, connecting muscles, tendons and blood vessels — the latter with sutures finer than a human hair.

Zion said that the past few years have been “like a rollercoaster – up, down, fast, slow.” Following the surgery in 2015, he has been on a rigorous physical therapy regimen. One year later, Zion is thriving and becoming increasingly independent. He can now write, feed himself, get dressed and throw a baseball – all activities he was unable to do without hands. His favorite thing about his new hands is being able to wrap them around his mom for a hug.

On his ninth birthday, Zion had a simple but powerful message to share with other children: 
“If any kid is watching this and you’re going through a rough time, never give up on what you’re doing. You’ll get there eventually.”

Watch Zion's Story:

Zion and Dr. Levin