PITTSBURGH -- Valarie Kepner was so excited at learning last fall that doctors might be able give her husband new hands that she called the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center without telling him first.
Jeff Kepner, 57, had lost his hands and feet a decade ago to sepsis that developed from a strep infection. On Monday, he became the first person to undergo a double hand transplant in the U.S. and the second person to undergo a hand transplant through the hospital's new hand transplant program.
"I really wanted him to regain his independence," Kepner said. "I think he's really excited. He kinda keeps looking down and looking at them. It's kinda cool."
Kepner, of Augusta, Ga., isn't able to move his new hands or feel them yet; that will depend on how long it takes for his nerves to grow, a process that could take months.
"This whole surgery just opens up just the possibilities for him to just to be able regain his independence in so many ways and to go back ... to cook and to do the things he could do in the past," she said.
After retiring from the Air Force, where he was the slow-pitch softball team's pitcher, he went to school to become a pastry chef, she said. He has a 13-year-old daughter and looks forward to playing with her. He also has two adult children and two grandsons.
Over the years, he adapted to his prosthetics - he can drive and works at Borders - but he relied on Valarie to shower and help dress him. When she first told him about the possibility of surgery, he wasn't sure he wanted to go through with it. But then he made up his mind to have the double surgery.
The Kepners flew to Pittsburgh on Sunday after the hands became available. According to the Center for Organ Recovery and Education, the donor was a 23-year-old Pennsylvania man whose heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, kidneys and tissue went to other recipients. Ten hand surgeons divided into four teams for the procedure: two prepared Kepner's forearms and two prepared the donor's hands. The teams worked simultaneously, and the surgery took just less than nine hours.
Eight double hand transplants have been performed abroad. Last month, French physicians performed the world's first simultaneous partial face and double hand transplant.