A man whose hands were left unusable by scleroderma has been given a new lease of life after what is believed to be the world’s first double hand transplant for the condition. Steven Gallagher, 48, was diagnosed with scleroderma, an autoimmune disease that causes scarring of the skin and internal organs, after he developed an unusual rash on his cheeks and nose about 13 years ago, and pains in his right arm.
Doctors initially said it could be lupus, then thought it was carpal tunnel syndrome and he underwent an operation, but when the pain returned in both arms he was referred to a specialist who confirmed he had scleroderma. The condition affected areas including his nose, mouth and hands and, about seven years ago, his fingers started curling in until they were in a fist position and he was suffering “horrendous” pain.
When experts suggested the idea of a double hand transplant the father-of-three initially dismissed the idea but then decided to go ahead despite the risks. He said: “My hands were unusable, I couldn’t do a thing apart from lift things with two hands.
“When Professor Hart in Glasgow mentioned to me about a double hand transplant, at the time I laughed but, after thinking about it for a wee while, I spoke more to Professor Hart, and I went down to Leeds and spoke to Professor Kay. They were really understanding and were really open about what might happen, that I could lose my hands altogether, they said it was unlikely but it was a risk.
“My wife and I spoke about it and came to the agreement to go for it. I could end up losing my hands anyway, so it was just a case of letting them know I was going to go with it.”
Mr Gallagher, from Dreghorn in North Ayrshire, had to undergo psychological evaluation to ensure he was prepared for the prospect of a transplant. He then underwent the 12-hour operation in mid-December 2021 after a suitable donor was found.
The hand transplant team at Leeds Teaching Hospital NHS Trust, which carried out the surgery, said it is the first time anywhere in the world that hand transplantation has been used to replace hands terminally affected by scleroderma. Mr Gallagher said: “After the operation I woke up and it was quite surreal because before it I had my hands and then when I woke up from the operation I still had hands so in my head I never really lost any hands.”
Mr Gallagher, who has three daughters aged 12, 24 and 27, spent about four weeks in Leeds General Infirmary following the operation and has regular visits to hospitals in Glasgow for physiotherapy and monitoring. More than five months on from the operation, his condition is improving and he can do things like stroke his dog, turn on the tap and fill a glass of water.
Professor Simon Kay, of Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “This operation has been a huge team effort. We and our expert clinical psychologists assess and prepare patients, in order to be sure that they will be able to cope psychologically with the permanent reminder of their transplant.”
For more stories from where you live, visit InYourArea.