BC man to be first in Canada to receive double hand transplant

Historic transplant hopes

A Coquitlam man is set to be the first patient to ever receive a double hand transplant in Canada, five years after bacterial meningitis and septic shock took his hands and feet. 

In April 2015, Rick Thompson woke up in the middle of the night with what he thought was a 24-hour bug. 

“I woke up because I was really thirsty,” he says. “I try to go downstairs, and my feet feel like they’re on fire… I’m freaking out.”

The last thing Thompson remembers is standing in the living room where his wife, Rita, was watching TV. He was rushed to hospital as, one by one, his organs started to fail. Septic shock, an infection of the blood, led doctors to put him into a medically induced coma. On life support, Thompson said he was given a 5% chance of survival, all the result of what he thinks was an infected cut.

Six weeks later, he woke up in Royal Columbian Hospital and was offered a choice: prepare for death or undergo amputation.

“They gave us three hours to think about it and decide what we want to do,” said Thompson. 

Before the amputations, Thompson rode motocross and was a supervisor at a restaurant and hotel food supplier. Now, he couldn’t work, couldn’t even move under his own power. Today, he walks on two prosthetic legs. 

People around Metro Vancouver chipped in to help him buy a myoelectric-controlled prosthetic hand. But the artificial appendages, which are controlled by electrical signals, only gave him about 20% function and they were cumbersome and heavy. After two hours, said Thompson, he would be exhausted.

So in 2018, Thompson started researching the prospect of a once-unimaginable procedure: double hand transplant surgery. The operation, never attempted before in Canada. 

Doctors at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver put Thompson in touch with a team of physicians at University Hospital and St. Joseph’s Health Centre. In total, a team of 14 surgeons and several other specialists from both health facilities agreed to risk the complicated procedure.

But for all his ambition to push ahead, to risk his life for a procedure on the leading edge of medical science, Thompson is staring into a $60,000 financial hole.

Rita and their dog Choppy are planning to move to London, Ont. in April and the procedure is expected to happen sometime before the end of the summer. They will remain in London for the first two to three years after surgery, throughout which he will spend five hours a day, five days a week learning to use his hands again as the regenerating nerves bring feeling to his new appendages. 

B.C.’s health care system doesn’t support costs associated with hand transplants, and so the Coquitlam man was denied funding required to cover the $10,000-a-year price tag for the immunosuppressive medication that will prevent his body from rejecting the new hands.

To cover the costs of medication and an eventual move back to B.C., Thompson has launched two online fundraising efforts, one through a GoFundMe campaign — which by Feb. 26 had raised less than $1,800 of a $60,000 goal — and another through a Facebook fundraising page.

Doctors said he’s expected to get somewhere between 50% and 70% of function in his new hands. 

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