After Having a Double Hand Transplant, This Little Boy is Following his Baseball DreamsJun 3, 2019
Buttoning shirts, pouring water, turning doorknobs, typing on a keyboard – we use our hands so much we forget they’re there. But for Zion Harvey, the world’s youngest double hand transplant recipient, every little movement is a victory.
Zion lost both his hands and feet at age 2 from a sepsis infection. He has relied on prosthetics and intense physical therapy for most of his life. But when you watch him on camera before his surgery, what stands out is not his injuries but his affectionate, restless, laughing energy — the epitome of an 8-year-old. “My grandmother says I’m smarter than a lot of grownups. I’m really smarter than a lot of grownups,” he muses.
In 2015, Zion became the first child in the world to receive a bilateral hand transplant. “It’s one thing to sew adult vessels, which in and of themselves are small and require a kind of skill,” says the the transplant program director. “But the highest echelons of reconstructive microsurgery take place in children.”
Over 11 hours, a team of 40 experts fused bone to bone, artery to artery, and skin to skin, until the breathless moment when Zion’s blood began to flow into once-dead hands.
Zion Harvey’s hand transplant (The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia)
Eighteen months later, Zion is feeding himself, dressing himself, writing (original rap songs mostly), and finally fulfilling one of his dreams — swinging a baseball bat. “Here’s the piece of my life that was missing,” Zion says. “Now it’s here; my life is complete.”
The transplant process hasn’t been without its hurdles. Zion’s body tried to reject the transplanted hands multiple times, and doctors have kept the rejections at bay using immunosuppressants, which over time can lead to increased risk of cancer and other diseases.
“Our concerns about doing these hand transplants in anybody is that once you do it, the patient has to stay on lifelong medications so they don’t reject,” says the program’s co-director Benjamin Chang. “And those medications increase the risk of infection and [also the risk of] having some cancer develop later on in life. And so for a child that’s a very, very difficult decision.”
But since Zion had already had a kidney transplant years earlier, he was already taking immunosuppressive drugs. Doctors decided to “piggyback” off this initial prescription when choosing him as the first pediatric double hand transplant patient.
Already a quasi-celebrity, Zion will spend his whole life under scrutiny. The surgical procedure, the balance of post-op meds, the psychological approach to learning to move through life with someone else’s hands — all will serve as a lesson in what works and what doesn’t. And none of it will be easy.
But as Zion’s mom says, it’s all “just another hurdle that he jumps… He’s been doing amazing things since he’s been sick. I don’t know many adults that could handle half of his life.”
In a follow-up video created by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Zion is hopeful for the future. “All I want to say is that the next child that comes along, I know you will do the same as you’ve done for me,” he says on his last day in the hospital. “And every child that comes along after the next, you will make them feel a part of the world again.”