The miracles of medicine continue to prove that truly, anything is possible. In January, Toronto surgeons performed Canada’s first hand and forearm transplant. And while we once lived in a time where such a surgery seemed impossible, one woman’s journey toward a brighter future shows that faith, determination, and the powers of science can achieve nearly anything.
Back in 2005, Maryam Zolfi’s left arm was severed below the elbow as a result of a tragic car accident. Three years later, the registered nurse was back at work, sporting a non-functional artificial arm.
“It was very difficult,” she admits. The 50-year-old said she tried to hide her prosthetic by wearing long-sleeved tops, even during summer. “The people, when they realized I didn’t have a hand, the way they talked to me, and everyone (was) pitying me.”
Four years ago Zolfi began scouring the Internet for hand transplants and discovered that some American hospitals were performing the procedure. While this proved hopeful, she couldn’t travel to the States to get it herself, and the doctors told her only U.S. residents were eligible.
“Then something happened three years ago,” she began. “My pastor told me he had had a vision about my hand. He saw in the vision that I have a hand, in the future.” Zolfi says she also had a dream in 2014 that she had a hand, but it was marked with scars from surgery.
Zolfi decided to search websites for anything related to hand transplants in Canada, and eventually came across doctors at Toronto Western Hospital who were looking for a candidate for what would be the country’s first opportunity to attempt the complex surgery. She contacted the lead surgeon on the project, Dr. Steven McCabe, in hopes that she could be the patient they used, but after seeing her, this specialist in plastic and reconstructive surgery said his team was looking for a patient with a wrist amputation — not someone in need of a forearm, which is a far more complicated surgery.
“He told me there was no chance for me,” Zolfi said.
Despite his original remarks, McCabe chose to consult with American colleagues who had done the operation, and eventually brought Zolfi back in for X-rays, blood tests, and psychological evaluations.
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“And they chose to use me,” she said.
A team of doctors prepared for more than a year to perform the surgery, and on Jan. 7, at 2 a.m., 18 surgeons began the 14-hour operation to attach the forearm of a deceased female donor whose age, skin color, size, and blood type matched those of Zolfi’s.
“God showed me in my dream it’s going to work,” Zolfi explained. “I didn’t even think about the side-effects or other things. And I just asked God to do this for me, because I knew that it was going to work.”
Zolfi now has sensation and movement in her new forearm, and says she is beginning to get both in her hand and thumb.
“I can move my fingers. I can hold a cup in my hand or I can pick up and drop something.”
More surgery will be done to lessen the scarring, according to Dr. McCabe.
While Zolfi no longer has phantom pain related to the loss of her lower arm, she now suffers from pain related to the growth of her nerves into the muscles of the donor arm.
“The nerves have to find their way all the way down to reach the small muscles in the hand,” McCabe said. “So we anticipate over the next six months or so, she will get some innervation down to the small muscles of her hand, and then we expect she will have a lot of further improvement in her hand function.”
“We know the nerves recover about one millimetre a day, so she’s right on track or even a little faster for nerve regeneration. She’s a very focused and committed patient and she’s done extremely well.”
Zolfi is now driving again, cooks her own meals, does her own household chores, and is planning to return to work in nursing, most likely in an office position.
“I’d like to encourage the people that have lost their hand because the way that it’s worked for me, I think it is going to work for them, too,” Zolfi explained.
The surgery has changed Zolfi’s life, and she will be forever grateful to McCabe and the surgical team, as well as the donor, for giving her a second chance at a normal life.
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