New Hands for Sarah

updated 11/17/2008 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/17/2008 AT 01:00 AM EST

Though she lost her hands to disease 16 years ago, Sarah Mues is as independent as they come. She can drive, wash her hair, even type 35 words per minute. But when she looks at her two young sons, a powerful longing comes over the Redmond, Ore., mom. "I just want to intertwine my fingers with theirs and hold their hands with mine," says Sarah, 30, tearing up as she watches Patrick, 8, and Eric, 3.

Sarah might soon get that chance. A revolutionary surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) would allow her to become the first double hand-transplant recipient in the United States (see box). In a couple of years—the time it will take for the nerves in her arms to grow into her hands—she will be able to "feel the world again," says her doctor W. P. Andrew Lee, chief of plastic surgery at UPMC.

Sarah was a spunky child growing up in Redmond, but her world changed in 1992 when she was just 14. She woke up one night with a high fever and intense pain in her hip. Her mother rushed her to the emergency room, where doctors discovered Sarah had pneumococcal sepsis, a sometimes fatal bacterial infection. She was given high dosages of antibiotics, but the bacteria seeped into her bloodstream. It destroyed tissue in her arms and toes, forcing doctors to amputate the blackened limbs (see box). Sarah, however, was—and remains—astonishingly upbeat. "People were always like, 'Did you get depressed?' But I never did," she says. With physical rehabilitation and her own determination, Sarah learned to squeeze objects like a fork or a pen between her shortened arms to feed herself or write, to type with her elbows and to connect a hooked wire to one arm so she could zip her pants. Her sister Jenna, 27, says Patrick once made a wish that his mother had arms—something Sarah never thought possible.

Then in September, on a vacation in Chicago, she and Jenna met Dr. Eric Manders, a surgeon at UPMC in town for a convention. He had seen Sarah using a knife and fork and was amazed by her dexterity. He told them about the surgery (which is funded by UPMC and the U.S. Department of Defense). "It was so surreal," says Sarah, who receives $500 monthly disability payments. For the next few weeks she will undergo psychological and physical testing to ensure she's a good candidate. It may be years before the procedure is complete, but Sarah doesn't mind the wait. "If I got hands again, it would be amazing," she says. "I think it will just completely change my life."

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