BERLIN — The world’s only recipient of two full arms in a landmark transplant operation said on Wednesday he expected to soon be able to toast the success of the procedure with a good Bavarian beer.
Karl Merk, a dairy farmer from the southern German city of Munich, lost both arms in an accident involving a combine harvester seven years ago but doctors were able to give him new new limbs.
One year after his operation, Merk, 55, showed off his new-found mobility, waving his arms around and scratching his head for the cameras.
Asked if he was able to drink a glass of beer in typical Bavarian fashion, Merk said: “Well, yeah, at the moment I’m drinking from a straw otherwise it would be a bit dangerous but it should happen soon.”
However, he said his life was “basically back to normal” after the 15-hour surgery carried out by around 40 doctors, surgeons and nurses on July 25 and 26 last year.
“My biggest dream is to be able to move my fingers a bit and basically do everything independently for myself,” Merk added.
Nevertheless, the double amputee said he was able to enjoy simple pleasures again. “It’s going really well. I often go with my wife to walk the dog,” he said, adding that he could again hug his family.
He said his best moment in the past year was when he lifted up his new arms for the first time.
“At the beginning, I didn’t dare to believe it,” he said, in a thick Bavarian accent. “The first three or four weeks were hard, but I would do it again straightaway,” he said.
He demonstrated some of the gruelling rehabilitation exercises he must perform daily to regain strength, crossing his arms several times for the cameras.
He also showed how he was able to lift his arms above his head and lean forward on his forearms.
The spectacular transplant, carried out at the teaching hospital of the Technical University in Munich, was a pioneering operation and the only one ever performed.
The five teams working in two operating theatres gathered at 10:00 pm the night of the operation, one on each side of the patient and the donor, who had died only hours before. A fifth group removed a leg vein from the donor.
The first step was to expose the muscle, nerves and blood vessels to be connected. Before the bones of the donor could be cut, blood vessels in his arms were filled with a cooled preservation solution.
Both the donor’s arms were then removed exactly at the point corresponding to Merk’s arm stumps.
First the bones were joined, then arteries and veins to ensure blood circulation as quickly as possible.
The surgeons attached the muscles and tendons, then the nerves and finally the skin.
Although Merk’s body had tried to reject the transplanted arms three times, this difficulty had now been overcome with drugs that he will have to take for the rest of his life, doctors said.
Christoph Hoehnke, the head of the transplant team, said: “It is our intention today to show people, who may have a similar handicap … what is possible in certain circumstances.”
“Mr Merk is much further along than we thought he would be … he was a fantastic patient,” he said, beaming.
Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved (Thanks to Steve McNeice for sending this article)Tags: Christoph Hoehnke, combine harvester, double amputee, Karl Merk, Munich, rehabilitation, transplant