Edmond family touched by injured man's hand transplant experience

Double-hand transplant patient Rich Edwards has returned to his Edmond home after surgery in August in Kentucky.
BY SONYA COLBERG scolberg@opubco.com Modified: April 3, 2011 at 12:13 am •  Published: April 3, 2011

Rich Edwards was trapped.

Flames crackled through the dry grass and leapt around the sport utility vehicle as the frantic man tried to escape. Just as he touched the red-hot door handle, Edwards heard a click.

The electrical system had burned up, sealing Edwards inside the SUV. The heat was so intense, he could barely breathe.

Suddenly, all the windows exploded, shattering into a thousand pieces.

“I don't remember anything after that. I just know that allowed me to get out of there without burning alive,” said Edwards, 56.

The Edmond chiropractor was burned severely over 30 percent of his body and his hands were deformed, sending him down the long pathway toward becoming the country's third double-hand transplant recipient.

It's still a mystery just how Edwards, with unimaginable burns on his face, arms, hands and legs, escaped and walked a mile over rugged, hilly terrain to the cabin he shared with hunting buddies.

Angels get credit

His injuries occurred Feb. 11, 2006, when his SUV's catalytic converter apparently sparked the fire after his truck and trailer high-centered on a dry hillside near Weatherford on a frigid, windy night.

Edwards and others credit angels for his survival, pointing to burn spots that resemble wings on his back and the curiously unmarked white tennis shoes he wore through the fire that spread over 20 acres.

He kicked open the front door, and his friend, Ron Maxwell, was shocked to see his buddy incoherent, wearing what appeared to be a 3-D leafy camouflage suit for hunting.

“I thought, ‘My gosh, did he get in a fight with a pig?' It looked like someone had used a cheese grater on his skin and left the pieces hanging,” Maxwell said. “His hands were gone.”

The “leaves” hanging down in his face were actually burned pieces of skin. His facial skin and hair were gone, except for his eyelashes and eyebrows.

‘Gift from God'

Edwards fell into a 10-day coma and Weatherford Hospital emergency room doctors told Maxwell that Edwards wouldn't live through the helicopter ride to the Integris Baptist Medical Center burn unit. And once he made it to the hospital, surgeons told his wife, Cindy, that he might not live.

“And if he does, he might not have much of a face left,” they said.

“He'll probably be blind. We'll have to put another nose on him, put other lips and ears on him. He'll lose his hands.”

Instead, Edwards healed remarkably well during his two months in the burn unit. But his hands remained useless stubs.

“My sense of touch has been my gift from God,” he said.

The chiropractor depended on those hands so much that he and his wife worked to find the best hand surgeons in the nation. But Edwards, who'd predicted he'd be back at work within four months of the accident, was devastated when a surgeon said that a fifth surgery would be the final one for Edward's right hand and he'd start on his left hand.

Edwards still couldn't use his hands.

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I wake up every morning and look at my hands. I can't believe I have two hands and 10 fingers.”

Richard Edwards

Hand transplant recipient

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