The couple searched for a better answer. That took them to the Kleinert Kutz Hand Care Center, where Edwards underwent three years of testing to ensure he would be a good candidate to receive the nation's third double-hand transplant operation.
Then, one night, the telephone rang.
“Rich, we've got a pair of hands for you,” said Dr. Warren Breidenbach, who led the surgical team at Jewish Hospital Hand Care Center in Louisville, Ky.
“Oh, praise God,” Edwards said.
‘I was so scared'
They caught a plane the next morning and Edwards underwent a 17½-hour hand surgery Aug. 24 and 25 by a transplant team from Kleinert Kutz Hand Care Center and the University of Louisville.
“I was so scared to see them,” Edwards said.
Edwards said he felt sure the hands would be too tiny or too fat. But they were perfect and looked like his original hands.
“Well, they're close. I think they fit him well,” said Cindy Edwards, 55, looking at her husband's right hand and stroking it. “It was so surreal. I was used to seeing those club hands and then to see these hands, it was as if they belonged there. Yet, it was weird.”
Edwards had the advantage over other transplant patients who were missing hands, sometimes for decades. The surgeon was able to place the new hands on top of the structures of his original hands and route his existing nerves into the new hands. Consequently, Edwards could move all of his fingers just days afterward.
“In terms of the function of his hands, the look of his hands, the attitude, he's A-plus,” Breidenbach said.
Edwards has gone through hours of therapy and several additional surgeries to keep his hands functioning. And now, the doctor has prescribed a new medication because Edwards' arteries seem to be thickening.
“He could lose the hands, as can happen in any of the hand transplant patients,” Breidenbach said.
He said, especially in the 1990s, hand transplants were highly controversial, arguing that the transplants were too risky and it was unethical to replace a non-life-saving organ. But the controversy has declined and there have been about 50 hand transplants worldwide. Sixteen of those were double-hand transplants.
The fire and surgery revived Edwards both spiritually and physically. He changed the course of his life and became more spiritual the day he said angels carried him out of the fire.
Physically, Edwards can't yet return to his chiropractic practice. Yet, for the first time in five years, he can shower, shave one-handed, buckle his own seat belt and hold a coffee cup with one hand. He said that though he's lost the tips of two fingers, he's confident his new hands will become more functional over time.
“I wake up every morning and look at my hands,” Edwards said, “I can't believe I have two hands and 10 fingers.”
And Cindy Edwards said she welcomes her changed husband and has lost her initial nervousness about letting him touch her with another man's hands.
“But they're his,” she said, stroking his hand. “What comes through his hands comes from his heart.”