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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Double hand transplant pioneer: 5 years with someone else's hands, Chris Pollock grasps college, church, moments
David Wenner ' firstname.lastname@example.org By David Wenner ' email@example.com
on February 05, 2015 at 9:00 AM, updated February 06, 2015 at 6:18 AM
Like many college students, Chris Pollock's hand frequently grips a smart phone and his fingers routinely tap out texts.
The 46-year-old Dauphin County resident isn't typical, although his classmates wouldn't notice exactly why. He's the second person in the United States to get a double hand transplant. He's the first to receive one that includes an entire forearm and elbow.
It put him on "Good Morning America" and drew reporters from Europe to his home in Susquehanna Township following the 2010 transplant.
The burst of celebrity has faded. But the therapy following such a transplant lasts years. Discouragement is a dangerous possible side effect. The first man to receive a double hand transplant in the United States once asked for the hands to be removed.
Therapy before first light
Before 7 a.m. on a frigid morning recently, Pollock parked at a building at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. He's been going there for more than four years. Inside, he sat at a table opposite occupational therapist Jana Poole. Snowflake cutouts dangled from the ceiling in the large room filled with therapy tables and exercise equipment. Poole laid warm towels over Pollock's hands. After a while she began stretching one of his hands backward at the wrist, continuing their quest for the fullest possible range of motion.
For seven months following his transplant, Pollock did therapy six hours a day, five days a week. He went four days a week for several years after that.
Now he goes once a week, for 90 minutes. He needs only one transplant-related medical checkup per year. He gets monthly blood work to make sure his anti-rejection medication dose remains correct.
He drives just like anyone. He can sign his name, peel an egg, cook and clean, and operate a snow blower.
Poole has worked with Pollock since he had stumps and hook-like prosthetic hands. She has worked with others whose own hand, and even an arm, was reattached. But he is her first and only hand transplant patient.
Late in the therapy session, Pollock squeezes a device that measures the strength of his grip. Poole enters results into her laptop. After five years, his hand strength might be plateauing. But even after his hands stop improving physically, he can continue to gain function, through practice, or mastering new ways to do things. Much depends on what he wants to accomplish.
"Some people would stall out and not continue to try new things. He has never not tried," Poole says.
An instant changed everything
Pollock spent 25 years as a mechanic in the Army and National Guard. On the day after Thanksgiving in 2008, he helped a friend harvest corn near Carlisle. Pollock had separated from his wife two years earlier and now lived with his parents. His twin boy and girl were teenagers.
While his friend worked in a different field, Pollock spent the day on a tractor pulling an ancient corn picker that deposited the corn in a wagon. Near evening, he hopped down to check the wagon. He noticed corn stalks caught in the chute of the picker, and took a swat to dislodge them. The conveyor chain caught his sleeve and pulled his hand into the machine. Pollock reflexively reached with the other and it too became caught. He knew immediately his hands were lost. He was alone for 30 minutes until help arrived.
He spent several weeks at Penn State Hershey and eventually obtained prosthetics that enabled him to drive. Eventually, he saw a magazine story about Jeff Kepner, the first U.S. double hand transplant recipient, who received it at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. On Feb. 5, 2010, Pollock received his transplant at UPMC during an 11-hour operation involving three transplant teams totaling about 30 people.
Physical, spiritual challenges
Pollock was depressed following the accident. His parents had recently joined Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Paxtang, and his father invited him to attend. Pollock had gone to church while growing up, then stopped attending regularly after confirmation. But after his accident he began reading the Bible. At Good Shepherd, he soon was attending Sunday and Wednesday services.
As his hands have grown stronger, so has his involvement with his church. He continues to attend two services per week. Now he has an official role that includes handling the wine chalice during communion. "There are a lot of special people at our church," he says.
Congregation celebrates second chances
Almost exactly a year after Pollock's accident, Steve Turner of Susquehanna Township sat at a Thanksgiving table surrounded by loved ones. Something got him thinking about transplants. He knew tens of thousands of people at any given time await kidney donations they'll die without. He pictured kidney failure patients sitting at Thanksgiving gatherings, wondering if it would be their last. "It was like a movie moment," he says.
It happened again at Christmas, and a few days later he called PinnacleHealth System to offer a "Good Samaritan" kidney donation.
He wound up part of a "chain" where someone wants to donate a kidney to a loved one but doesn't match. So that person agrees to donate to a stranger, in return for a donation for their loved one. Turner's kidney went to a woman in Baltimore, triggering a chain in which four people received kidney transplants in two days.
Turner, 58, attends the same church as Pollock. On Sunday, Good Shepherd will celebrate their transplant anniversaries. Turner is chief counsel for the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. He says he never passes up a chance to talk about organ donation, or the driver's license option that enables someone to donate organs if they die of an accident.
"It's another chance at life," he says of organ transplants. "Chris is the living proof that by someone being generous enough, and their family supporting that decision, Chris can have hands again. That is amazing and fantastic and miraculous. The gift, as you leave this planet, to save someone, is just incredible."
The challenge of finding a career
After his therapy session last week, Pollock drove straight to Harrisburg Area Community College, where his first class began at 9:30 a.m. Pollock had enlisted in the military right after high school, because of his mechanical aptitude and preference for working with his hands. At HACC, he had to take remedial courses before beginning college-level work. Now he has 40 transferable credits — in classes including college algebra, statistics and American literature - with a 3.8 GPA.
He's allowed to use assorted modifications or aids, including someone to take notes for him. But the only one he uses is additional time to complete tests, in the event he can't write quickly enough. He takes notes, completes essay questions and types papers.
A new challenge is to find a career. His hands, while capable, wouldn't hold up to full-time mechanical work. He must find something different, to fill his time and to earn a living. His injury qualified him for a disability, and he received military benefits. But if he didn't live with his parents, he doubts he could make it. His career decision is complicated by his natural inclination toward physical work.
"I used to use my hands constantly. Now it's going to be all thinking," he says. "I'm the kind of person who wants to be mobile. I can't sit in a cubicle. That's what's hard for me to face."
Valuing days, moments
Talking about the way he used to be, Pollock once explained how he used to play the lottery, following that haphazard longing for easy, instant betterment. He was impatient, always rushing to be "done." Years ago, he checked the time even in church. The trait might have contributed to his accident, he says. He no longer rushes. He enjoys one day at a time, focusing on the practical, the doable and the achievable. Two years ago, for example, he started a new "family tradition" where he and his son run in a Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot.
After his accident, people told him it happened for a reason, offering various possible explanations. Pollock wasn't sure. Now he has many reasons to be sure, including people who have told him his recovery inspires them. "Things needed to happen that way," he says. "I think God knew I'm the kind of person who won't give up."
Information from: Pennlive.com, http://www.pennlive.com
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