Zion Harvey just wants to play on the monkey bars.
That's what the 8-year-old Maryland boy said when asked why he wanted hands, according to one of his surgeons.
He lost both of his hands when he was just 2; doctors had to amputate them following an infection and sepsis, a life-threatening complication. Zion also lost both of his legs below the knee.
This month, the boy from Owings Mills, a Baltimore suburb, became the youngest person to ever receive a bilateral hand transplant, according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. A 40-person medical team completed the complex surgery earlier in July, but officials didn't announce the successful procedure until this week.
It was, according to Madeline Bell, president and chief executive of the hospital, an "extraordinary accomplishment."
The hospital completed its first successful bilateral hand transplant on an adult in 2011. "As far as we know, it's never been attempted in a child," Benjamin Chang, co-director of the hospital's hand transplant program, said in a video released by the hospital.
Following his amputations, Zion received leg prosthetics that allow him to walk and run freely, according to the hospital. His mother, Pattie Ray, donated a kidney to Zion when he was just 4, meaning he has to take immunosuppressant medications to prevent his body from rejecting the donated kidney.
Such medications, which Zion will have to take for life, can increase risks of infection and developing cancer later in life, Chang said. Since Zion was already on such medications, it made him an ideal candidate for the hand transplant as "essentially, we would piggyback off of those same medications," Chang said.
The nonprofit Gift of Life Donor Program helped find a suitable donor for Zion, and then four teams of surgeons operated simultaneously. The procedure took 11 hours, the Associated Press reported.
Doctors attached the donated hands and forearms to Zion by connecting bone, blood vessels, nerves, muscles, tendons and skin, according to the hospital.
First, the forearm bones, the radius and ulna, were connected with steel plates and screws. Next, microvascular surgical techniques were used to connect the arteries and veins. Once blood flow was established through the reconnected blood vessels, surgeons individually repaired and rejoined each muscle and tendon. Surgeons then reattached nerves and then closed the surgical sites.
Here's a longer video, from the hospital, that delves more into the science behind the surgery:
The donor's family has remained anonymous, and hospital officials said they wouldn't hold Zion's family liable for additional costs beyond insurance coverage, the Associated Press reported.
If the surgery hadn't gone well, Zion said, "I would have had my family to fall back on." Speaking at a press conference, where he was seated before rows of relatives, he added, "I want to say to you guys, thank you for helping me through this bumpy road."
L. Scott Levin, head of the hospital's transplant program, said Zion has "a maturity that is way beyond his eight years" and said he "woke up smiling," the Associated Press reported. "There hasn't been one whimper, one tear, one complaint."
Doctors expect Zion will be back home after a few weeks of rehabilitation.
"This is just another hurdle that he jumps," Ray said before the surgery. "He jumps so many hurdles, he's amazing. This isn't the first amazing thing that he's done. I don't know many adults who can handle half of his life, on a day-to-day basis."