PITTSBURGH (CBS 2) — It’s easy to take our hands for granted — the feeling of hot and cold or grasping something quickly with our fingertips.
But a New Jersey woman is getting a second chance at those experiences and she’s making history, reports CBS 2’s Dana Tyler.
Sheila Advento is the picture of independence. Putting on her makeup, sending an email, these are simple everyday things the 33-year-old doesn’t take for granted.
Tyler shook Advento’s hand recently, wondering all along what the experience was like for her.
“I can feel the pressure,” Advento said.
They are not the hands she was born with. The Hackensack resident is the first woman in the United States to undergo a double-hand transplant.
“I’m overwhelmed. I’m part of history,” Advento said. “Because of that responsibility I have to work the hardest and make sure and prove that I have two brand new hands that will eventually work 100 percent.”
Advento’s normal life took a shocking turn seven years ago. She contracted a severe bacterial infection called “meningococcemia” and fell into a coma. Her mother, a hospital nurse, made the only decision she could to save her daughter’s life. She gave the okay for doctors to amputate her arms and legs.
“I remember her telling me, ‘mommy, don’t cry, there is a reason for this. I mean, boy, she had a strength to tell me that,” said Pieded Angeles, a nurse manager at NYU’s Rusk Institute.
When asked where that strength came from Sheila said, “I don’t know. It’s just there. Why else would it happen to me?”
But after it happened, the quadruple amputee was determined to not be dependent or depressed. She worked hard adjusting to prosthetic limbs. As part of her healing, she wrote a book sharing her story. She also offers encouraging words to amputee support groups.
“I believe that’s my true calling, to share my story. For some reason people get inspiration out of it and I’m so thankful for that and I never take it for granted. When they get inspiration I get inspired,” Sheila said.
Her positive attitude was key as she faced challenges. Her artificial arms were cumbersome and with no fingers, she had no sense of touch. She said a hand transplant was always in the back of her mind.
“If I prayed for it to get the hands, I felt guilty because it was someone else’s life. Someone had to give those hands. I had to be patient,” she said.
Last fall, Advento was accepted on the transplant waiting list at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The hospital, studying anti-rejection drugs, had already done four successful hand transplants. Beyond screening for blood and tissue types, Advento’s new hands had to be the right skin color, size and age.
“The most important part is assuring that a patient is mentally competent to accept such a big operation. It’s a big responsibility because it’s a lifelong commitment of therapy maintenance and medicine and follow-up,” Dr. Joseph Losee said.
“I wasn’t scared at all. I was focused,” Sheila said.
In mid-September, in a 12-hour surgery, a surgical team of 20 people attached the nerves, tendons and blood vessels of two new hands. Within hours there was success. For the next four months, Advento lived in Pittsburgh as her occupational therapy increased to five days a week, six hours a day. What’s more, Dr. Losee told Tyler the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has paid for the entire procedure, including Advento’s therapy and all of her follow-up appointments.
Her doctors and therapists said she’s made remarkable progress.
“Make a fist, open, make a fist, open, bring your thumb down,” Sheila said, recounting some of her therapy.
“Her long flexors where they connected the hand to the arm, they’re real tight. It’s real hard to get her hands straight unless I bend her wrist, so we do a lot of stretching,” said occupational therapist Kim Zeske-Maguire, who works at Pittsburgh’s Centers For Rehab Services.
“My brain still has to get readjusted that seven years later I have hands, but it’s getting there,” Sheila added.
It’s repetitive work. She’s re-learning how to pull out a plug, lock a door and is beginning to reconnect with her hobbies of weaving and drawing. She’s doing all of this with renewed appreciation for life’s simplest pleasures, like talking with her hands.
“Even now I can express more. It feels … it’s empowering, actually.
Advento has incredible spirit. She can’t move all of her fingers yet, but every day there’s progress. In fact, she was right-handed, but her new left hand is stronger right now.
She’s back home in New Jersey, eager to live independently. She said she can’t wait to get back to work and get a manicure.
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