Meet the man who received the world’s first double arm transplant
A man whose arms and shoulders were amputated 23 years ago can say hello again thanks to advances in medical science
It was a very cold morning in 1998 when electrician Felix Gretarsson was sent to repair an electrical cable in his native Iceland. It should have been a routine job. Only there was a lack of communication with his colleagues about what line he was supposed to be working on. At the top of a pylon, Gretarsson caught the live wire by mistake.
The 11,000-volt surge threw him into the frozen tundra below, a 10-meter drop that broke his neck and back in three places. To make matters worse, his arms were on fire. Fortunately, and describing this as lucky is a testament to his terrible luck that day, Gretarsson landed near a river. Quick-thinking companions rushed to its banks, filling their hooves with icy water and using it to extinguish the flames.
“I just remember lying there waiting for the ambulance and feeling pain in my stomach because my body had shut out everything else,” Gretarsson tells Positive News. “They put me to sleep when I got to the hospital and I woke up three months later with no arms.”
Things got worse before they got better. Although surgeons initially amputated Gretarsson’s arms just above the elbows, the infections forced them to keep taking more than what was left, stopping at the shoulders. “They cut me piece by piece for the next 11 months,” he says. “My doctor said that in those early years I had 54 operations.”
It is difficult to imagine how anyone could face such trauma. As it did? Therapy? “My therapy consisted of shutting him out with drugs and alcohol and general destruction for years to come,” he admits. “I came to a place where they told me: ‘Either you’re going to be dead or you’re going to do something.’ Alcoholics Anonymous helped him “turn things around.”
Unfortunately, the drink put his liver, already depleted from the accident, under additional stress, to the point that Gretarsson required a liver transplant. He failed, so he had another two months later.
Felix Gretarsson in the photo after the 14 hour procedure. Image: Felix Gretarsson
The procedure opened Gretarsson’s mind to the possibilities that transplants offer. With anxious eyes, he followed the news of the world’s first hand transplant in 1999, completed at the Edouard Herriot hospital in Lyon, France.
By chance, the doctor who performed the procedure, Professor Jean-Michel Dubernard, visited Iceland in 2007 to give a lecture on transplantation. By then, his team had also performed the world’s first face transplant.
Gretarsson located Dubernard at his hotel and the doctor agreed to review his case. News of the world’s first double-arm transplant in Germany a year later he gave Gretarsson more cause for optimism. He moved to Lyon to be closer to the doctors in whom he had placed his hopes.
I came to France for arms, but now I have much more
In Lyon, Gretarsson joined a Meetup group to brush up on the international language of medicine: English. It was in those classes that he met a Polish yoga teacher named Sylwia, whom he fell in love with and married. “We have two little dogs and a very nice life here now,” he says. “I came for weapons, but now I have many more.”
After meeting Sylwia, Gretarsson stopped “waiting for the phone to ring” and moved on with his life. Only the phone finally rang: in January of this year, doctors called to say that a suitable donor had been found and that they wanted to continue with the procedure. And so Gretarsson became the recipient of the world’s first double arm and shoulder transplant.
Surgeons hailed it as a success, but with three years of rehab ahead, it remains to be seen how much movement Gretarsson is capable of regaining. “If you can regain the ability to actively bend your elbow, it would change your life,” says lead surgeon Aram Gazarian.
The first signs are promising. “I feel the nerves up to the elbow in both arms,” says Gretarsson. “That is not supposed to be happening so fast. It’s amazing.”
“I have a Danish liver, French arms, I am a modern Frankenstein,” jokes Gretarsson. Image: Felix Gretarsson
Gretarsson publishes regular updates on Instagram, under the control @felix_gretarsson. In one post, he was able to move his right arm, although he mainly used his shoulder to move. In another, she takes her need for a manicure lightly: Along with the hair on her new arms, her nails have started to grow. “I need my mom to do my nails,” he jokes. “She is the best to do that.”
Despite everything that has happened and the questions that remain about what movement he will recover, Gretarsson finds humor and positivity in his situation. “I have a Danish liver, French arms, I am a modern Frankenstein,” he jokes, adding: “No one else has lost their arms and shoulders and got them back. I consider myself very, very privileged ”.
His wife, Sylwia, described the transplant as her husband’s “greatest dream.” However, at a press conference, he told reporters that he did not believe the procedure was necessary, as he “lacked nothing.”
Two other recent medical advances
A man who was once blind can see again after becoming the world’s first recipient of an artificial cornea. Jamal Furani, 78, lost his sight to corneal disease a decade ago.
But in January he underwent a transplant in his native Israel and can now read numbers on a graph. The success of the procedure raises hope for the approximately 10 million people living with corneal blindness worldwide.
Image: Jordan Whitfield
A medical gun that spins a translucent, breathable, adhesive dressing could provide a more effective treatment for burns. The Spincare system reduces the need for regular bandages (pictured), which restrict mobility and can be extremely painful to change.
The Nanomedic firm’s innovation is being tested by clinicians in Europe and Israel, where it is showing encouraging initial results.
Image: Diana Polekhina
Lead Image: Felix Gretarsson