In April 2016, UCSF Health doctors performed a first-of-its-kind elbow transplant between the same patient's arms. Experts say the surgery could transform treatment for trauma patients, injured veterans and others with elbow and joint conditions.
UCSF Health Surgeons Perform First Elbow Transplant Between Same Patient's Arms
"The fact that the donor elbow came from the same patient – a mirror-image elbow – is what makes this procedure unique and the first of its kind," UCSF Health surgeon Dr. Lisa Lattanza said of the transplant performed for 37-year-old Reginald Cook.
A Novel Surgery
The 12-hour procedure involved five surgeons, two orthopedic upper extremity specialists and three plastic-microvascular surgeons. The doctors worked on both of Cook's arms simultaneously to remove and connect bone, muscles, blood vessels, nerves and skin.
"This surgery was a bit like ballet," said Lattanza, who led the team that transplanted Cook's left elbow into his right arm. "Everybody knew their part and performed flawlessly at just the right time."
A 2009 car accident left Cook, of El Paso, Texas, in a coma for months. He sustained brain trauma, several broken bones in his neck and paralysis in his legs, necessitating a wheelchair.
Cook also suffered a complete detachment of the brachial plexus, a network of nerves that control movement and sensation in the arm and hand, from his left arm and failed to recover any nerve function there. Despite multiple reconstructive procedures to repair a shattered elbow in his right arm, Cook wound up with no right elbow joint and later only half the bone in that limb after an implanted elbow joint became infected.
As a result, he could no longer control his right arm for even simple tasks like eating, although he did have good movement of his right hand. Cook relied on his sister and a visiting nurse for care.
An Unusual Collaboration
"He did not have use of either arm," said Dr. Eric Sides, Cook's orthopedic surgeon in Texas who worked with Lattanza on the case. "His right arm was basically frozen at 90 degrees, and his left arm was completely nonfunctional."
Sides, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso, first met Lattanza in the mid-1990s when the two were residents at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He contacted Lattanza after Cook suggested the idea of an elbow transplant, hoping to regain use of one of his arms.
Sides and Cook traveled to San Francisco to meet with Lattanza in November 2015. The procedure was potentially risky since Cook could lose function in his right hand, due to possible nerve damage during the operation, as well as scar tissue from the previous infection and surgeries.
In the months leading up to the procedure, Lattanza worked with UCSF colleagues and consultants around the world to devise the novel surgery, which would remove Cook's left arm from above the elbow and transplant that elbow to his right arm. The team also used 3-D computer modeling software from Belgian company Materialise to help plan the surgery.
The UCSF Health surgical team included Dr. Scott Hansen, Dr. Charles Lee, Dr. Michael Terry and Dr. Samantha Piper. Alyssa Ricker, principal clinical engineer for Materialise, served as imaging consultant.
Despite extensive planning, Lattanza and her team made adjustments on the fly during the surgery because Cook's anatomy had changed since his initial visit.
"The bones came back together well, the joint is working well and the flap is alive," Lattanza said after Cook's surgery. "He's moving his right hand, so there was no nerve damage during the operation. We're all very hopeful on the outcome."
She added that one month after the transplant, Cook was able to lift his hand to his face and mouth on his own.
Hope for the Future
"I'm now feeling touch and sensations," Cook said. He stayed in San Francisco for several weeks after the surgery while doctors monitored his progress.
Sides said he hoped his patient would regain the ability to dress and feed himself over the next year – and possibly even walk again.
"If we can make the arm strong enough, he should be OK to walk with a cane," Sides said.
Cook restarted physical therapy in his right arm, and his left arm had suitable anchoring for a prosthesis if desired, his doctors said.
"I can't wait to be independent and give my 14-year-old daughter a big hug," said Cook, who hopes to become a motivational speaker. "This has been life-changing for me."