It is an extraordinary moment to watch. Hesitantly at first, but slowly gaining in confidence, Corinne Hutton begins to wiggle her fingers, a beaming smile spreading across her face.
It is nothing less than momentous given that, two days earlier, she had no hands at all.
Last week, she became one of a tiny group of people in the UK to benefit from a pioneering double hand transplant.
It had been five long years since the catastrophic day Corinne, 48, lost her hands and feet to sepsis; five years of prosthetics and pain during which she has had to overhaul her entire life. In truth, she is lucky to be alive at all.
But today, the results of the painstaking, 12-hour procedure at Leeds General Infirmary, which involved four teams of highly specialised surgeons, are already astonishing the doctors – and, indeed, their patient.
Corinne can barely stop staring at her new hands with wonder. ‘It’s all been worth it,’ she says, tearfully. ‘Even now, with all the pains, aches, the medication, the lack of sleep. I can’t stop looking at them. They’re absolutely fantastic.
But the one thing I want to do more than anything now is hold my son’s hand properly.
‘Since he was four, he’s had to hold what’s been left of my hands. He’s ten now and he might not be very keen on the idea of holding his mum’s hand, but I’m going to do it anyway – because I haven’t been able to do it for so long.’
It is undoubtedly an incredible feat for medical science that such complex surgery is possible.
It has not been an easy journey. Former graphic designer Corinne has not only had to come to terms with life as a quadruple amputee, but endured an additional personal tragedy when her marriage fell apart along the way.
Her husband left, unable it seems to cope with her disabilities and, when asked if he has been in touch to congratulate her on the operation, she simply shakes her head.
Still, her sense of determination has not diminished. She has raised her young son as a single parent and channelled her energies into launching her own charity for amputees, Finding Your Feet.
In an extraordinary display of human endeavour, she also climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last October using prosthetic limbs.
Today, however, her thoughts are with the family of the 51-year-old donor whose hands have given her life fresh hope. Remarkably, thanks to the skills of the surgeons and the team which matches donors to patients, they already feel like her own.
But she is keenly aware that her happy story of success is the result of another family’s tragedy.
‘I hope her family can take some comfort and consolation from the fact that her hands will change my life,’ she says.
‘The family’s personal loss is horrendous, the worst thing in the world, but I will be forever filled with gratitude. These hands are destined for great things.’ Indeed, Corinne is lucky to be alive at all.
In June 2013, the 48-year-old, from Lochwinnoch, near Glasgow, had been in otherwise good health when she developed a persistent, hacking cough, and was prescribed antibiotics.
But after feeling increasingly unwell, she went to A&E at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, where she collapsed and spent three weeks in a medically induced coma, suffering from pneumonia.
At one point, her chances of survival were just five per cent.
Her hands and feet turned black and, when she came round, she was devastated to learn that she would became a quadruple amputee.
But from the beginning, there was hope that her hands, at least, could be replaced.
Two leading plastic surgeons, Professor Simon Kay at Leeds, who performed the UK’s first single hand transplant in 2012, and Professor Andrew Hart in Glasgow, who amputated her hands and feet, agreed she was an ideal candidate for transplant surgery.
She had to undergo extensive screening to assess her psychological and physical suitability to face the demanding surgery. Only a small number of amputees are accepted as potential recipients – and it was Corinne’s positive attitude which flagged her as ideal.
Those waiting for a limb, however, face even greater problems than those requiring an organ. Donor and patient must be the same gender and ethnicity, with the same skin type and tone. The hands must also be the same size as the ones which have been lost.
Corinne’s case posed further complexities in that she received 25 different blood transfusions during her battle with sepsis, which left her with a wide range of different antibodies in her system.
To get by, she was fitted with a bionic glove to tackle complicated tasks such as hair brushing and making a cup of tea. The call to confirm a match could come at any time and a hospital bag was always packed and waiting.
But it was crushing to endure regular false alarms – when her surgical team thought they had a donor but they turned out not to be a suitable match.
Corinne said: ‘I’m a positive person but I had started to think it would never happen to me. In the beginning, my heart raced when I got the phone call, thinking it was all about to happen but then there were 12 false alarms that I knew about and another eight that the hospital team didn’t tell me about.’
It was agonising when the first double hand transplant took place in July 2016 – on another patient. Chris King, 58, from Doncaster, lost both hands in a work accident. There have been two further doubles since, including the UK’s first woman, Tanya Jackson, 42, from Hull.
Having lost both hands and her left arm to sepsis, the mother-of-three put herself forward for the operation after watching a TV documentary on Corinne’s case.
‘I saw other people getting the surgery and, while I was happy for them, I was starting to think after five years that maybe I should just be happy with my lot,’ continues Corinne.
‘I thought, “Do I really want to go through this again and start from scratch?” I had begun setting myself up for disappointment. I loathed my stumps but, together with my bionic glove and my prosthetic legs, I’d become completely self-sufficient. For me, getting new hands was always the difference between being able to use buttons and zips or hold my son’s hand or run my fingers through his hair.
‘In the end, I had no option but to leave it to fate.’
It was during this long, frustrating period that her marriage also ended. Corinne admits it was ‘never a marriage made in heaven’.
But her deep anger at the collapse of her relationship and feelings of rejection as she struggled to rebuild her life and her confidence, clearly still hurt. There is little she wants to say on the matter. While her son Rory maintains a good relationship with his father, her own dealings with her ex remain ‘distant’.
The call that would change her life came on the evening of Monday January 7. The team at Leeds told her they believed they had a possible match and advised her to stand by. ‘At first, I tried not to believe it,’ she says. ‘But this time they seemed pretty certain. I was at home with Rory and I said, “Mummy might be getting new hands after all.”
‘When the call came that it was happening and an ambulance was on its way for me, we all kicked into automatic pilot. Silly things go through your head, though. I made sure I emptied the washing machine and put notes everywhere with instructions for things I hadn’t had time to do, like return parcels.’
Corinne made the 240-mile journey alone, leaving Rory with her brother. By the time she arrived at Leeds General Infirmary at 3.30am, a team of 12 surgeons – led by Prof Kay – was beginning to assemble, including one from Lyon, in France.
They would only find out in theatre how viable Corinne’s own wrists and nerve endings were, which would affect how much of the donor’s own limbs they used. But the team were ‘excited’ and the general atmosphere was ‘amazing’, Corinne recalls.
The surgery began at 1pm on January 8 and finished in the early hours of the following morning.
When Corinne woke, her stumps had gone, replaced by a pair of new hands and wrists, after the surgeons decided the scar tissue in her own wrists was too great.
‘It was absolutely phenomenal. Looking at them for the first time, I was full of wonder. They’ve done a wonderful job and the fact I have the donor’s wrists too means I’m already able to move my fingers.’
There were emotional moments.
‘I remember my brother saying, “Look, you’ve got hands!” and I was like “I do! I’ve got hands!” I didn’t instantly think, “They’re not mine.”
‘But that’s the whole point of the psychological counselling. The idea is you wake up and eventually, or so I thought, you come round to the idea that they’re yours. If they looked wrong, that wouldn’t work. But I loved them straight away.’
The level of expertise involved throughout the entire process was breathtaking, as Corinne learned.
‘As two teams – one for each hand – opened up my wrists, two retrieval teams were working on the donor. Speed is of the essence as, unlike organs which can be kept for some hours, hands begin to die the minute circulation stops. Professor Hart, who removed my original hands, had tucked a lot of the nerves away to preserve them, which meant they could make very long joins and weave things like tendons all through which makes them much stronger than a joint, so they are delighted with that.’
She adds, with a laugh: ‘I did remember to say goodbye to my stumps and I now feel a bit bad that I was so dismissive of them.
‘I will always be grateful to them but these are so much better. What I’ve got essentially is two perfect hands on two perfect arms.’
There is still the chance, despite taking immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of her life, that her body could reject the new appendages. If that happens, they may have to be removed.
But so far, her recovery has been more successful than even the doctors had hoped. On day two, she wiggled her fingers. Corinne puts it partially down to being advised, following her amputation, to frequently imagine she could play piano.
She hasn’t ever played the instrument but – mentally, at least – she’s now a concert pianist.
‘The point was to keep the muscles and tendons in my arms in good shape,’ she explains. ‘You have to imagine moving every individual finger – even though you just have a stump. I could feel every single nerve and I was made to work at that.
‘I do wonder if the fact I’ve been able to wiggle my fingers already is because of it. I did it religiously. I never could play piano but in my head I’m now great at it.
‘Moving the fingers feels as you would expect but I’m having to really concentrate. Hopefully, eventually, it will just become normal muscle memory.’
Corinne will receive physiotherapy three times a week to build dexterity, but sensation may take another 18 months.
She has already experienced occasional ‘shooting pain’ through her hands but this is a normal reaction of the tendons adjusting to their new systems.
A physiotherapist, massaging her fingers as we chat, remarks that Corinne’s new digits would look lovely with a wedding ring. ‘I’ve tried it,’ Corinne quips dryly. ‘I liked being married but unfortunately he didn’t feel the same.’
Later this week she will return home to be reunited with son Rory, who has spoken to her excitedly every day over FaceTime.
Tearfully, Corinne says: ‘He wants to see I’m all right. Apart from that, life goes on as normal for him. I’ve held up my new hands to show him and he’s very taken with them but then, like any ten-year-old, he quickly loses interest and goes off to do something else.’
She also hopes, at some point, to be able to meet the family of the woman whose hands she now calls her own. The woman’s major organs have also gone on to save the lives of others around the country.
She plans to write a letter, not only to her donor’s family but to the specialist organ donation nurses whose job it is to persuade families to consider the commitment.
‘I will thank the nurses for persevering and not giving up on me. Recipients are not told anything about the donor but I would like to meet her family one day, even hold their hands if they will allow it.
‘The donor family might never want to know but, if I could, I would like to tell them face to face that I will make this hand transplant worthwhile.
‘As long as they know I’m full of gratitude and I’ve made my vow to put their loved one’s hands to great use, I’m happy with that.’Yeah