Leeds hospital leads the way with hand transplants

Professor Simon Kay and his team as they perform the UK's first double hand transplant at Leeds General Infirmary, on patient Chris King, from Doncaster. Credit: Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust
/PA Wire

Professor Simon Kay and his team as they perform the UK's first double hand transplant at Leeds General Infirmary, on patient Chris King, from Doncaster. Credit: Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust /PA Wire

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A Yorkshire hospital has truly become a centre of excellence for hand transplantation after performing a second life-changing operation.

Chris King underwent the UK’s first double hand transplant, which was carried out at Leeds General Infirmary – the national specialist centre for the highly-complex surgery – earlier this month.

Patients from all over the country could undergo the procedure in Leeds as consultant plastic surgeon Professor Simon Kay and his team have already been chosen by NHS England to lead the way nationally.

The first single hand transplant in the UK took place in 2012 and “completely transformed” the life of recipient Mark Cahill.

Now it is hoped that the fact that the procedure becoming is more commonplace will encourage donations.

Prof Kay, who led a team of eight surgeons for the 12-hour operation on Mr King, said: “It’s the first time as far as I’m aware, that a hand transplant’s been done which hasn’t been above the wrist, which has been within the substance of the hand, which makes it much more difficult and more complex.

“As far as I know those are unique features.”

He added that 57-year-old Mr King, from Doncaster, was recovering well so far, and should eventually have movement and sensation in his donor hands.

“Everybody latches onto movement but, of course, it’s very important that he regains the feeling as well.

“And I would expect that he will regain very good movement and very good feeling.”

Mr King is the first patient to have undergone the procedure since Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust was designated the UK’s specialist centre for hand transplants in April.

The NHS commissioning framework changed shortly after the first ever hand transplant was done, which “completely transformed” the life of Mark Cahill.

Mr Cahill, from Halifax, now has almost full use of the transplanted hand so he is able to drive and lift up his grandchildren.

Earlier this year the former pub landlord, 55, used the limb to save his wife Sylvia’s life after she suffered a heart attack.

He carried out chest compressions and, after 12 days in hospital, she is now recovering at home.

Four people are currently waiting for further hand transplants in Leeds, with the timing dependent on the availability of donors.

Prof Kay said: “It could be this evening. It could be a year.

“Because hand transplantation is such an unusual thing, people have been slow to donate. We’ve certainly had many opportunities to ask for donations that haven’t been given. I think that’s entirely understandable.

“The people who work for NHS Blood and Transplant have the very difficult job of asking for donations at the time of the death of a loved one.

“I think now that hand transplantation is a reality and people can see the good it does, I hope they’ll consider making that donation as readily as they do a liver and kidney and heart and lungs.”

He added: “Not only do we have to match the hands immunologically, in the same way that we have to match kidneys and livers, they also have to look appropriate because the hands are on view the whole time.

“In a way that makes the job of finding the correct donor even harder.”

He said: “The psychological impact of having hands or not having hands is very great because, like the face, they’re on view all the time and you look at and judge hands for their beauty and what they’re saying and what they communicate and what they do and what they tell you about that person.

“So Chris’s most rewarding comment to date is that he feels whole again and that’s incredibly important.”

Hand transplants can be so successful that recipients can end up with a hand which moves with dexterity, feels warm to the touch and even heals itself from injury.

NHS Blood and Transplant work with the Leeds team to find possible donors, looking to match blood group, skin tone and hand size.

During the procedure, surgeons work to remove the donor hand while separate teams work on the recipient. To attach the hand, the two bones in the upper arm are put in place with titanium plates and screws then tendons, muscles and blood vessels are connected.

More information is at www.handtransplantuk.com.

Martin Jenkins.

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