Rick Thompson had all of his limbs amputated after contracting bacterial meningitis and septic shock in 2015. (The Canadian Press)

B.C. man prepares to be first to receive double-hand transplant in Canada

After the surgery, transplant patients face a long recovery

When Rick Thompson’s doctor told him a surgical team was going ahead with his double-hand transplant in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, his first reaction was surprise.

“We’re targeting August, maybe early September,” he said in a recent interview.

“I was even shocked when (the doctor) told me. I met him last week and I asked him for a ballpark time frame. And he said August, and I said ‘Oh, OK.’ I wasn’t quite ready for that.”

Thompson moved to Ontario from B.C. in April to prepare for the surgery in London. It involves medical and psychological tests, as well as finding a donor.

If things go as planned, Thompson will be Canada’s first double-hand transplant patient.

Thompson had all of his limbs amputated after contracting bacterial meningitis and septic shock in 2015.

He left work early one day in May, after feeling like he was coming down with the flu, and decided to sleep it off. A few hours later, he woke up to get a drink of water.

“But when I stood up my feet were like on fire. I could barely walk. I made it downstairs to where my wife Rita was watching TV. And that’s pretty well the last thing I remember. I just collapsed on the floor.”

He woke up six weeks later in intensive care, confronted with the choice of dying in palliative care or amputation.

“If I wanted to survive, I would need all four limbs amputated,” he said.

“In the end, the will to live is stronger than anything else.”

After 8 1/2 hours of surgery, doctors had amputated his limbs.

“That was a difficult time, obviously, because you know, you wake up as a different person. You look down and all you see is bandages … where your hands used to be or where your legs and feet used to be,” he said.

“The first thing that came to my mind was, what did I just do?”

After learning about hand transplants two years ago, Thompson met with a team of doctors in Ontario to assess whether he would make a suitable candidate.

“It’s life changing,” he said.

“Being able to shake someone’s hand, being able to pick up a cup of coffee with one hand, write your name with a pen, open a door, you know, just the things that we take for granted every day.”

Dr. Steven McCabe, who performed Canada’s first hand transplant, may participate in the surgery. He is a hand surgeon at Toronto Western Hospital and an associate professor at the University of Toronto.

The surgery can take 10 to 12 hours with four teams of surgeons. Each team consists of six to 10 people.

While operating on both hands makes the surgery logistically harder because it involves more people, McCabe said it is “logical” to do the two transplants at the same time.

“When you transplant, you’re introducing this different tissue,” he explained. “And the theory behind that is that you don’t want to introduce two different donor tissues.”

A person who undergoes a transplant has to take immunosuppressants, so the body doesn’t reject the new organ or limb, and it’s easier when surgery is done all at once, he said.

“So if you transplanted one limb, and then three months or a year later, the other one, you’d have to go through that again. The idea is to get that all over with one donor.”

But there’s also another reason.

“Having one hand when you have none is a huge benefit,” McCabe said.

“But if you’re going to have that type of surgery, and it seems logical to transplant both hands, part of the sense of wholeness is restored. It seems to be very important for patients.”

There are risks associated with the surgery, including infections and the possibility of blood loss. But McCabe said the benefits outweigh the risks, and limb transplants have low rejection rates.

After the surgery, transplant patients face a long recovery, he added.

“If you transplant the limb near the elbow, it will take a few months for the muscles to start to work again, and maybe up to a year or more for the nerves to get down to the fingers to have some feeling,” McCabe said. “So, I think we would say, you can’t judge whether it’s really helped or not for at least a couple years.”

Thompson said unlike most organ transplants, a hand transplant is visible.

“It’s physically there. So getting over the mental challenge is going to be the hardest one, because you know they belonged to someone else at one point and now they’re on your body,” Thompson said.

“You have to look at it as a gift … (the donor) family has decided to give you this gift. And it’s a gift I’m not going to waste.”

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Health

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Oak Bay council places 60-day protection order on Island Road house

Developer pulled heritage agreement over ‘exorbitant’ $417,000 fees

Saanich council to dig into long-awaited garden suite study

Detached suites keep families close, provide financial flexibility, mayor says

BIPOC artists come together to paint mural highlighting racial injustice in Bastion Square

‘More Justice, More Peace’ to go beyond cycle of hurt and sadness

Victoria man charged in stabbing death of Vancouver overdose prevention worker

Maximus Roland Hayes, 23, is facing one count of manslaughter in connection to the killing

Firefighters tackle medium-sized grass fire on rural Saanich property

Saanich Fire Department issues warm weather fire safety reminder

VIDEO: Greater Victoria police officers try bhangra dancing with social media star

Gurdeep Pandher leads bhangra lesson on front lawn of the BC Legislature building

Captain Horvat’s OT marker lifts Canucks to 4-3 win over Blues

Vancouver takes 2-0 lead in best-of-7 NHL playoff series with St. Louis

Widow of slain Red Deer doctor thanks community for support ahead of vigil

Fellow doctors, members of the public will gather for a physically-distanced vigil in central Alberta

Taking dog feces and a jackhammer to neighbourhood dispute costs B.C. man $16,000

‘Pellegrin’s actions were motivated by malice …a vindictive, pointless, dangerous and unlawful act’

Racist stickers at Keremeos pub leaves group uneasy and angry

The ‘OK’ hand gesture is a known hate-symbol

VIDEO: World responds to B.C. girl after pandemic cancels birthday party

Dozens of cards and numerous packages were delivered to six-year-old Charlie Manning

Expected fall peak of COVID-19 in Canada could overwhelm health systems: Tam

National modelling projections released Friday show an expected peak in cases this fall

Hundreds of sea lions to be killed on Columbia River in effort to save endangered fish

Nearly 22,000 comments received during public review were opposed, fewer than 200 were for

Most Read