Kentucky's first female double hand transplant recipient looking forward to baking, knitting

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A Jeffersonville woman is the tenth patient to receive a hand transplant by the Louisville Vascularized Composite Allograft surgical team at Jewish Hospital. She is also making history as the first female to have a double hand transplant in Kentucky.

Louella Aker lost both of her hands and legs below the knee after the Henryville tornadoes in 2012. Her home and family were spared. But doctors believe she got an infection helping others clean up, forcing them to surgically remove her hands and legs.

Wednesday morning at a press conference at the Frazier Rehab Institute, a team of surgeons and researchers announced Aker underwent a successful transplant on September 17. It was just a year ago that Aker was added to the organ donor registry on September 18, 2015.

Dr. Tuna Ozyurekoglu, the lead surgeon, said it took a team of 20 surgeons and 17 hours to complete the procedure. They had to connect the nerves, muscles, and tendons from the new hands to what was left of her own hands.

“She didn’t have a thumb,” Ozyurekoglu said as he described Aker’s right hand. “But she had one of the bones in the thumb, and the muscle in the thumb was still working.”

The surgeons also faced obstacles with the left hand.

“Normally, we have 15 or 16 muscles that move the hand and wrist,” said Ozyurekoglu. “And she had only six.”

Stem cells were used in both hands. But Aker’s surgery and healing progress is also advancing critical research in what are being called “super cells”. Dr. Stu Williams, with the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute, said these “super cells” are Aker’s own cells pulled from her fat.

“We’re really trying to fool Mother Nature here a little bit,” said Williams. “By putting her own cells into this hand, it won’t recognize it as being foreign.”

Williams said they will track Aker’s healing progress. The hope is that by using her own cells, her body has a better chance of not rejecting these new hands.

Dr. Christina Kaufman, with the Christine M. Kleinert Institute for Hand and Microsurgery, said about 120 hand transplants have been done in the world and this research is putting Louisville on the map. If it works with Aker’s hands, the same process could work with other transplants and with organs. Eventually, they also hope to use fat cells to help treat rejection.

Kaufman said the Department of Defense is funding this research. And she said the department emailed Wednesday morning to say another $600,000 is available in funding if the group submits an application.

Louella does not know who the donor is, but she said she is thankful the donor’s family allowed her to have new hands. As Aker held back tears she said, “I couldn’t love them any more than any of my own family.”

Aker will stay in the hospital for another month for physical therapy. By the time she leaves, physicians hope she can grasp and hold things again. But it will take months for her nerves to recover and for her to be able to do something like button a shirt.

Ozyurekoglu said he will only find Aker’s surgery a full success when she can do two of her favorite things again: knit and bake. Aker said she is thrilled to cook for her family with her own hands during the upcoming holidays. Her son piped up during the press conference and said he can’t wait for her pumpkin pie.

The surgery was a team effort between Jewish Hospital, KentuckyOne Health, the Christine M. Kleinert Institute for Hand and Microsurgery, and the University of Louisville. The team is also using grants to collaborate with Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Maryland to expand hand transplant techniques. The team is also collaborating with the University of Missouri to improve therapy for transplant recipients.

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