'It is like my own limb': First British person to undergo a hand transplant gives operation a resounding thumbs up

Mark Cahill says hand transplant has given him a new lease of life
  • @philbycharlotte

It was the operation seemingly straight out of the pages of an Edgar Allan Poe novel, so would Britain's first hand transplant prove to be a success?

Now, two months the surgery, patient Mark Cahill has given his new body-part a resounding thumbs-up.

Speaking for the first time of his recovery from an eight-hour procedure, during which his original hand was amputated before that of a donor was attached to his arm in its place, the 51-year-old father of one said he was getting to grips with the change.

After five long years without mobility in his right hand, he now has it back – and with it the freedom he wanted to cut his own food and play with his grandson.

The new hand doesn't look quite like the old one – it is smaller, paler and more freckled than the original. But in an interview with the Radio Times, Mr Cahill, from Greetland near Halifax in West Yorkshire, explained that he had physically and mentally accepted the switch.

He said: "I've always seen it as my hand, since the moment I woke up after the operation.

"[The nails] grow at the same rate on both hands and they've already been cut three times. So whatever it is that makes your nails grow must come from me." Despite initial fears about whether or not the Yorkshireman would take to his new extremity, things looked hopeful from the start. Soon after the eight-hour operation, which was performed at Leeds General Infirmary on 7 December last year, showcasing a brand new technique which involves removing the patient's and transplanting the new hand during the same operation, Mr Cahill said he was "ecstatic" with the result.

But there was still room for trepidation. Much of the recovery process after such an operation relies on the recipient's emotional as well as physical ability to appropriate the new body part as their own. In order to ensure he didn't mentally reject the body, Mr Cahill and his wife were given counselling after the operation. And before he was even selected from a number of candidates for the pioneering procedure, he was given a series of psychological evaluations and an IQ test to make sure he was mentally prepared for what can be a traumatic event. The first short-term success in human hand transplantation involved New Zealander Clint Hallam who lost his hand in an accident in prison. The hand was transplanted by a worldwide team of doctors in 1998 in Lyon, France.

But in 2001 Mr Hallam, who never accepted his new hand and was said not to have followed through with the necessary physiotherapy and drug therapies as part of on-going aftercare, asked to have the limb removed.

A year later, American Matthew Scott, who lost his hand aged 24 in a fireworks accident, had the same operation with greater success.

Since then, greater emphasis has been put on health checks and mental preparation prior to surgery.

Mr Cahill, who lost the use of his hand as a result of severe gout, applied for the operation after Leeds Teaching Hospitals announced it was looking for candidates for hand or arm transplants surgery, in 2011. Following a series of psychological and physical tests, Mr Cahill, who was said to have the best tissue match, was selected for the surgery which provided an alternative to a bionic arm.

At the time, Mr Cahill said he wanted the operation in order to be able to hold his grandson's hand.

Over the course of eight hours, a team led by consultant plastic surgeon Professor Simon Kay used pioneering techniques in which the bones of the donor's hand and the patients arms are connected together, and tendons, nerves, arteries and veins stitched together, before the blood flow is restored and skin closed up.

Mr Cahill, who should be able to pick things up and tie his shoelaces with the hand within the next few months, said the operation had given him a new lease of life.

"I can see why people with two hands don't understand," he said.

"But going from a hand that can't do anything, it doesn't seem unusual. Having a hand that is warm, that feels, that is part of you, is much better than a prosthetic limb.

"The future's changed. Now I've got something to look forward to."

Much recovery relies on the recipient's emotional as well as physical ability to receive the new body part.