Will Lautzenheiser looked down at his rosy, fleshy new arm at a Brigham and Women's Hospital news conference this week and exclaimed, "It's the most beautiful arm!"
For three years, Lautzenheiser — a quadruple amputee in the wake of a virulent bacterial infection in 2011 — had lived without arms. Now, he and his Brigham and Women's Hospital transplant team have just revealed, he has two new ones, the gifts of an anonymous donor. A medical team of 35, including 13 surgeons, operated on him for nine hours last month to attach them.
Lautzenheiser, 40, spoke with us last year in the video above about his "sit-down" comedy career: "Did You Hear The One About The Comedian With No Arms And Legs?" That armless footage is now outdated.
It will take months for the new arms and hands to gain sensation and function, but Lautzenheiser, a former film professor at Boston University, says he's already putting them to good use, hugging his partner, Angel Gonzalez. "To be able to hold my love in my arms again is really the best," he said.
The late donor put those arms to similar use, as described in a message from his family that New England Organ Bank President Richard Luskin read aloud to Lautzenheiser: "Our son gave the best hugs. We pray that you make a wonderful recovery and that your loved ones will be able to enjoy your warm embrace."
Thus far, Lautzenheiser says, his new arms have little sensation, mainly just a bit of feeling in the skin right below where they're joined to his own body. As for moving them, "If I really focus, I can occasionally move my thumb just a little bit, a few millimeters. It bends. I can pronate and supinate my wrist on my right arm. I have a little bit of wrist motion, a little bit of forearm motion."
He's now commuting every weekday from home to the hospital for intensive rehabilitation and continuing medical care, and doing additional exercises throughout the day.
The whole process has been surprisingly painless, he said.
It generally takes months and up to a couple of years for a patient's nerves to grow into a transplanted limb, said Dr. Matthew Carty, director of lower extremity transplantation at Brigham and Women's.
"We would expect Will to essentially, over time, have an ascending level of sensation down his limb, which is pretty amazing to behold," he said. "A couple months from now he'll be able to feel things at a point further down each of his arms than what he can feel right now, and eventually, we hope, all the way to the tips of his fingers."
Wearing splints, Lautzenheiser can now use a spoon, and a stylus for electronics, though he can't type on a keyboard because his fingers cannot exert pressure. One big advance: He can now use his elbow to get up from bed independently. "This is major for me," he said.
The operation was not a major medical first, Brigham and Women's surgeons said, though they called it the first above-the-elbow transplant done in Boston.
"There have been about 70 hand transplants in about 50 patients around the world," said Dr. Simon Talbot, director of the Brigham's upper extremity transplantation. "This is certainly becoming more common. There are aspects of it that may be a first, but for the most part, this is, for us, becoming an operation that we are comfortable with."
So now that Will Lautzenheiser has new arms, will new legs be next? Possibly, but not soon. First come the many months of arm rehab. Ideally, leg transplant recipients can use their arms to help during leg rehabilitation, Dr. Carty says.
"So it's going to be critically important that Will achieves at least a minimum level of motion and stability in his arms, before we'd even consider his legs," he said. "That's our perspective. From his perspective, I'd imagine he's a little tired and may want a bit of a break. But we look forward to continuing these discussions with him over the future."
For now, Lautzenheiser says he's looking forward to a quiet Thanksgiving with his family. He offered special thanks to the donor and his family, saying he wanted to "acknowledge, and to honor, the memory of the man whose arms I have so gratefully received. This person, who's anonymous to me, will always be as close to me as my own skin now, and it's really an incredible gift."
So do his new arms function well enough to carve a Thanksgiving turkey?
Definitely not, Lautzenheiser said. But he does love to cook, and may be up to giving a bit of a stir to the whipped cream...