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New Hands for Jeff

updated 07/27/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/27/2009 01:00AM

Ten years ago Jeff Kepner woke up in a hospital bed with his wife, Valarie, leaning over him. "You've been sick," she told him through tears. "You've been asleep for three weeks." Jeff stared down at his hands. They were black, leathery, lifeless. "I'm not going to keep these, am I?" he asked. "No," Valarie said.

With that stark exchange, Jeff—Air Force veteran, fast-pitch softball ace, aspiring chef—steeled himself for a new life without hands. Or feet: The Strep A bacteria that had raced through his 47-year-old body had destroyed those as well. Overnight, the simple pleasures of peeling potatoes, walking hand in hand with Valarie or stroking the face of his 3-year-old daughter Jordan were lost. Unable even to screw in a lightbulb, "I would sit on the edge of the bed," recalls Jeff, of Augusta, Ga., "and cry."

Then, last May 4, Jeff, once again in a hospital bed, woke up at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to a very different kind of revelation—hands, two flesh-and-blood human ones, that now belonged to him. "I noticed how good they were, how nice they matched," says Jeff, now 57. Adds Valarie, 47: "I couldn't believe it. To see his fingers, it was amazing."

In a nine-hour operation, a team of 10 surgeons attached the wrists and hands of Jeff Keen—a 23-year-old organ donor from Pennsylvania who died unexpectedly—to what was left of Jeff's forearms, making him the first double-hand transplant recipient in the U.S. and the 12th worldwide. He must undergo intensive physical therapy, but Jeff, doctors say, should be able to throw a ball, bake a cake and feel the softness of his daughter's cheek by next summer. "His hands," says lead surgeon Dr. W.P. Andrew Lee, "will feel just like yours and mine."

Hand transplants are relatively rare (only six single-hand procedures have been done in the U.S.) largely because they're not lifesaving and doctors worry about the side effects of antirejection medication. In Jeff's case, Dr. Lee is pioneering a new protocol that will hopefully require Jeff to take just one, instead of three medications.

For Jeff it means the chance to pick up, in part, where he left off on May 22, 1999. Having graduated from culinary school after 20 years as an Air Force training specialist, he was working at a bookstore and helping care for Jordan while Valarie pursued her career in the federal corrections system. Battling flulike symptoms for nearly a week, Jeff ended up in the emergency room that afternoon. Things went from bad to worse after doctors diagnosed him with Streptococcal Toxic Shock Syndrome, which strikes about 10,000 people a year and is fatal in more than one-third of cases. "His organs were shutting down, he coded three times," Valarie recalls. "They didn't expect him to make it."

Jeff pulled through, but as a radically altered man. What followed was the painstaking process of mastering prosthetic hands and feet, only to suffer another setback when he had both hips replaced. Able to e-mail, drive and brush his teeth with his prosthetic hands, he couldn't pull on his "water legs" to shower; for that, he needed Valarie, who would rise at 4:30 a.m. to help him before she left for work. "There were days I was overwhelmed," she says, "but we're not quitters."

Especially now. Though he won't return home until September at the earliest, Jeff already has a list of things he wants to do: cook potato soup, try out his fast-pitch, play video games with Jordan. For her part, Jordan, now 13, can't wait to go bowling. "Every time I'd have a birthday," she says, "I'd wish for my dad to have arms and legs." Doctors have not yet found a way to transplant feet, but that's not much on Jeff's mind these days. Just recently, Valarie intertwined her fingers with his. "That's the first time I've held your hand in 10 years," she told her husband. "Just wait," Jeff replied, "until I can squeeze yours back."

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