DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – An infection took a local woman’s arms and legs, but a life-changing surgery at Duke gave back her independence. Deb Kelly is the first person in North Carolina to receive a bilateral hand transplant.
Deb Kelly’s world was one adventure after another. She loved traveling and spending time with friends and family. Very little slowed her down, so she didn’t think twice when she started feeling a little off on Easter Sunday of 2017.
“I think I was battling a little bit of a cold,” she recalled. “We thought maybe you were dehydrated. Maybe it was the flu. We didn’t know,” added her sister Michelle Najarian. “That was Monday night at 9 p.m. On Tuesday morning at 7:30 a.m., I received a call that said she’s going on life support.”
Kelly remained unconscious for days with her sister by her side. Doctors eventually determined she had an invasive form of strep. They had to amputate both hands and both legs.
“I don’t think I realized what an independent person I was until this happened,” Kelly said.
Before the infection, she worked as news editor and producer in Baltimore. She thrived on the stress and deadlines of the job and adored her coworkers, but was ready for retirement, travel, and relaxation. Instead, she found herself working to re-learn the simplest tasks. She came to rely on her sister, with whom she’s been close since childhood.
After months of rehab, Kelly learned to walk with prosthetics. That gave her back a little of her freedom.
“But not having hands, it’s just awful. Just awful,” she said. “I love to crochet, and knit, and sew, do crafts with the kids,” she said. “There were those nights, you know, when I would just sit there. I would cry.”
“I asked Michelle one time, ‘Do you think I’d be better off dead?” Kelly recalled. “And she brilliantly asked the question with a question and said, ‘Do you think you’d be better off dead?’ and I thought about it and thought about it. And I thought, no, I am here for a reason. Something made me fight to stay alive.”
She didn’t know it then, but 14 months after losing her hands, she found a new reason to hope at Duke University Hospital. After extensive testing, she was approved as the first patient in the state of North Carolina to receive a bilateral hand transplant.
Three months after that, she was placed on the transplant list. Duke hand transplant surgeon Dr. Linda Cendales and a surgical team of more than 40 people would perform the surgery as part of a clinical trial.
“It is a complex procedure few places in the world can perform,” Cendales explained.
Kelly thought often of the person who would become her donor.
“The woman who is going to donate her hands to me is alive right now and walking around and doesn’t know, and I pray every night for her and for her family,” she said.
A match came about two months after she was put on the transplant list.
“When I got the call, I thought, ‘OK, now this is really the beginning of the rest of my life,’ I know that sounds trite, but it’s true,” she said.
After first getting sick on Easter of 2017, life changed again, in a 14-hour surgery on Thanksgiving Day.
After waking from surgery, Kelly could hardly contain her joy when she pushed up her glasses using her hands. Less than two weeks later, she left the hospital for a rehab facility, and for the second time in two years, she began months of therapy.
This time, instead of learning to live without hands, she was relearning to live with them. Her entire body strained with the effort to move a finger, but she embraced each moment.
“To just see her how her life changed, because her life changed, is not only rewarding for me but for our entire team,” Cendales said.
In the weeks that followed her confidence and abilities continued to grow.
“I’m forcing myself to do more, and sometimes I spill water and I drop things, but it’s part of it,” Kelly said.
“Her perseverance is something that we have all learned from,” added her doctor.
Every day, Kelly gains a little more independence. As she celebrates each accomplishment, she is constantly conscious of the gift she’s been given by her donor.
“Before I went into the OR, I said a quiet little prayer to myself for the family,” she remembers. “A terrible thing for them, but what a wonderful thing they did for me.”