LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The nation's most successful hand transplant was performed in a landmark surgery in Louisville 20 years ago.

It was a controversial and groundbreaking surgery with no guarantee of success, and it put Louisville on the medical map.

Patient Matthew Scott returned this week for his annual checkup to mark the milestone with doctors at Jewish Hospital and the Kleinert Kutz Hand Care Center and to share how the transplant changed his life forever. In addition to monitoring his dexterity and mobility, doctors use a specialized ultrasound to check blood flow in the hand that was donated from a cadaver.

The New Jersey native became the first hand transplant recipient in the United States when his dominant left hand was transplanted in a marathon surgery on Jan. 24, 1999, when he was 37. 

The anniversary marks a celebration, but emotions surfaced as he remembered losing his left hand in a fireworks accident at the age of 24. He remembers the years with a prosthesis before his transplant.

"Things were missing," he said. "Not the big things, but the little things, every day things, like tying my shoes, clapping my hands when one of my sons did something. It was a problem." 

It all changed after the 15-hour surgery. Pictures shared with the world over the last 20 years give a glimpse into the countless hours of recovery, therapy and return trips to Louisville. The surgery opened the door to dozens more hand transplants since and changed Scott's life for the better.

He describes the transplanted hand as 55 percent functional but well over the 25 percent the prosthesis gave him.

"One of the greatest things I got because of the transplant was the wrist," he said. "My electric hand opened and closed but had no wrists. You'd be surprised how important the wrist is in everyday life."

The past 20 years is a milestone for the Louisville medical community, and Scott said he owes the most gratitude to the donor family.

"Without their brave and generous actions in the midst of a sad time, an unusual donation that had never been done before in this country for an unproven, experimental procedure ... And I can only hope I lived up to their expectations and that they approve," he said.

The success of Scott's transplant opened the way for research and reconstructive surgery around the world. As of 2019, the program said there have been more than 200 hands transplanted on more than 140 patients. Many of the surgeons were trained through the program developed at Jewish Hospital and the University of Louisville.

Scott is a former EMT who works in the medical field in New Jersey as a clinical coordinator for Virtua Health System and as the assistant director for the School of Paramedic Science at Camden County College.

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