Zion Harvey has more of a reason to smile than anybody. The eight year-old boy from Baltimore made medical history this week when he became the first person to undergo a double hand transplant. For the 40-people team that worked in surgery for 12 hours and the medical community as a whole, this is an incredible breakthrough that opens up a whole new chapter of possibilities. For Zion though, it means he’ll finally be able to swing from the monkey bars and hold his baby sister.
Zion is an amazing little kid who already had a more difficult life than most people, yet has always been brimming with optimism. At 2, Zion suffered a life-threatening sepsis infection, resulting in the failure of multiple organs and necessitating the amputation of his hands and feet. And after two years of dialysis, at age 4 he received a kidney from his mother, Pattie Ray.
Zion didn’t let the lack of hands hold him back though, and enjoyed the same activities as many other children, like strumming a guitar, playing foosball, and scrolling through his mom’s iPhone. He even found an optimistic way to deal with the occasional bully.
“They don’t mean to say mean things to me, but it just slips out,” he said. “Somebody says something to me, and I just figure it slipped out and they didn’t mean to say it. Everybody has their own way of thinking.”
Dr. L. Scott Levin of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia knows how tough Zion is and explained how positive Zion’s outlook on the risky procedure was from the very beginning until the end.
“I’ve never seen a tear, never an untoward face, never a complaint,” he said. “He’s always positive. And that, in and of itself, is remarkable.”
The only person more excited about Zion’s new hands than Zion was his mother, who was overcome with emotion following the successful surgery. “When I saw Zion’s hands for the first time after the operation, I just felt like he was being reborn,” she told USAToday. “I see my son in the light I haven’t seen him in five years. It was like having a newborn. It was a very joyous moment for me.”
Just like any other transplanted organ, hand transplants run the risk of being rejected by the body, so Zion will have to take special medication for the rest of his life. That’s a small price to pay though for being able to pick up and hold a puppy. Something that the youngster is pressing his mother to get.
Perhaps just as courageous as Zion is the hand donor family who had to make the decision after a terrible loss, to give Zion a new set of hands. The donation came from the Gift of Life Donor Program just months after he was placed on the waiting list in April. Dr. Levin stressed how amazing the donation was for the family and his hopes for Zion’s surgery to blaze a trail for others. “I hope he’s the first of literally hundreds or thousands of patients that are going to be afforded this surgery,” said Levin.