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September 23rd, 2011
10:06 AM ET

Human Factor: Two beautiful hands

In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship - they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week, meet Sheila Advento, a young woman who had to have both hands  and feet amputated after a bacterial meningitis infection in 2003.

Wow! It has been a year since undergoing hand transplants - and a truly remarkable year. I lived a life as a quadrilateral amputee for seven years, and then I received a blessing - these two beautiful hands, which I see every day from the moment I wake up until I go to sleep.

The idea of a possible hand transplant was embedded in me almost instantly following the amputation of my hands (by a plastic surgeon at Hackensack University Medical Center). The idea stayed with me. However, hand transplantation was not - at all - something I thought of from the very beginning of my journey. You see, it all started in 2003 when I got very ill.

July 2003 was truly a trying moment in my life. I caught an illness that changed me tremendously - Meningococcemia (bacterial meningitis). A few moments of flu-like symptoms turned into an extremely dangerous situation. There was no way any over-the-counter medications could have possibly saved me.

I went from having an upset stomach (as I was in and out of the bathroom) to severely deteriorating. Suddenly, I no longer had energy. In fact, my mother found me on the bathroom floor partially discolored. Then, I started to lose my vision. It was a race for time. A mere quick ride to Hackensack University Medical Center seemed forever as I also started to gasp for air. I was helpless.

I was sent off to the emergency room with doctors and nurses surrounding me, and then I was out. I was put in a coma. Tick tock! Tick tock! Then what?

The doctors wanted to “pull the plug,” believing they had done everything they could. “The talk” with my family occurred. Thankfully, my family didn’t give up.

Aside from being comatose for eight days, all of my four limbs were affected by the illness. As I woke up on the ninth day, I immediately noticed my hands - black and lifeless with only my manicured nails looking alive. And, eventually I saw my feet in the same state. Somehow, though, I just accepted right away that they had to go - THAT’S IT!

It was almost like I blocked off any possible negative emotion. And (surprisingly), there was not a moment of wondering "Why?"  I must add, though, that it was probably more difficult for my family - first, seeing me deteriorate, then in a coma and being warned by the doctors that they had done everything they could, and,then the physical changes.

Please don’t get me wrong, I cried - a lot. The reality of amputation rapidly emerged. Nevertheless, I had to accept it.

Yes, there were multiple attempts to save my limbs. One doctor suggested hyperbaric chamber treatment - 100% oxygen infused inside a large clear tube where a patient would go in for a certain amount of time. I did this for about 14 times. As hopeful as everyone was, I knew deep down that my hands and feet would need to be amputated. And they were.

A few months later, I was transferred to Kessler rehabilitation as an inpatient for a month. There, I worked out a lot until I received my prosthetics. Afterwards, I became an outpatient and recuperated. Then I had to start living actively again - I went back to work at Quest Diagnostics and regained (as much as I could) a social life. Also, I moved into my own apartment and later began driving (with hand controls).

A lot more happened in my life since the amputations. There were many bumps, but I made sure there were a lot of positive moments too. There were certainly many frustrating moments as I tried my very best to get used to the idea of being dependent, and as I tried to do things on my own.

However, as I’ve mentioned, the idea of hand transplants lingered - the many things I could do even with just one hand. Seven years later and the idea came to life. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center made it come true. Nine months after passing the intense screening tests, they called me in for the surgery. September 18, 2010, was truly an unforgettable day.

Now, I stand with these remarkable hands. With a lot of therapy and hard work, my progress is outstanding (even to myself). I did not have any expectations. But, I am extremely joyous with the developments - I write, draw, paint, live on my own, drive (hand controls), etc. I am able to attempt (even more) to be INDEPENDENT.

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY TO ME!


soundoff (63 Responses)
  1. Lynn Bozof

    Sheila is a true miracle - she has survived a devastating disease, meningococcal meningitis, and she has come out on top. There are many of us who weren't so lucky. I lost my 20 year old son - athlete, honor student, college junior, and with his brother, the loves of my life. I didn't know that this disease is potentiallly vaccine-preventable. It cost me the life of my son. The CDC recommends routine vaccination starting at 11-12 years of age, with a booster in five years. All teens entering college should have been vaccinated within 5 years. It is not too late to protect your children. Please visit the organization that I and other parents started in honor of our children and to educate, the National Meningitis Association.

    September 23, 2011 at 11:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Linda Harrigan Occpational Therapist

    This is a wonderful accomplishment for this women, the medical and rehabilitative communities. I am disappointed that the only therapy that was mentioned was physical therapy. I would expect or hope that an occupational therapist was also involved with her care. Occupational therapists have traditionally been the leaders in hand therapy but are rarely given the credit. I hope in the future you will consider and give credit to a very important rehabilitative professional-Occupational Therapy!!!

    September 23, 2011 at 12:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kathy King

      I concur. I would almost guess that this woman received OT but most people don't realize there is a difference. The press doesn't help either apparently!
      Kathy King COTA

      September 24, 2011 at 16:23 | Report abuse |
    • Cathy Thurman

      My husband is also the recipient of a hand transplant, February 2012. He goes to hand therapy twice a week – his occupational therapist is also a CHT!! Bless her heart – and nobody has ever called his people physical therapists. They're all OT with CHT. And he couldn't have done it without any of them!

      January 5, 2013 at 00:42 | Report abuse |
  3. Globe

    Lot of courage demonstrated by this beautiful lady.

    September 23, 2011 at 14:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. UNFORGETTABLE THATS WHAT YOU ARE

    A BIG INSPIRATION THATS WHAT YOU ARE. YOU SHOULD TRAVEL THE WORLD AND SPEAK I WOULD LOVE TO BE YOUR PERSONAL ASSISTANT. NICE TO KNOW THAT SOMETHING THIS OVERWHELMING DIDNT OVERCOME YOUR WILL TO THRIVE. BRAVO

    September 24, 2011 at 13:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Brandon Earnest

    About an hour ago CNN did a story about a New Jersey woman who underwent a double hand transplant. It was a terrific story, but very irritating to me. The ill-informed reporter stated that the woman was participating in physical therapy to regain her arm and hand function. SHE IS NOT!! She is working with an occupational therapist, the career I chose. Occupational therapists are often bundled with physical therapists, but we have a different education, core philosophy and approach to treatment that focuses on performing one‘s daily activities independently. While both therapies work on the same team toward the same goal, WE ARE DIFFERENT. Occupational therapy, along with other disciplines, is rarely acknowledged while physical therapy is the "go to" therapy. This is because people are more familiar with physical therapy. How will people become familiar with occupational therapy and other necessary disciplines if reporters do not take the initiative to educate people. Reporters, take the time to educate the public acknowledging all members of the physical rehabilitation team (Case Management, Neuropsychology, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Recreational Therapy, Rehabilitation Nursing, Speech Language Pathology and Social Work). It does take more than one person to build a village!
    Last, but certainly not least, congratulations to Sheila Advento for her remarkable recovery and best wishes for continued success toward greater functional independence.

    September 24, 2011 at 17:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Christianna

    Human body is so beautifully romancing and yet so practical. You notice it when you try to draw it or paint it and watch your own hands, both male and female. God's masterpiece creation.

    September 25, 2011 at 02:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Christianna

    Music is born, poems are constructed and paintings are created – so they seem.

    September 25, 2011 at 02:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Please provide a translation. This makes no sense.

      September 25, 2011 at 10:23 | Report abuse |
  8. Michael Reed, OTR/L

    Shelia Advento is a remarkable woman and I celebrate her courage. I applaud CNN for covering this story. Now, let's please get it right. Many years ago an inspiring story was made into a movie, 'The Other Side of the Mountain'. The story told of the courage of a survivor and the "physical therapist" that helped that survival happen. If you read the book you will find that the "physical therapist" was actually an occupational therapist. According to the producer no one would understand what the occupational therapist was so they made the switch to the more familiar physical therapist. Every day I invest 8 to 10 hours of my life helping people recover from stroke, brain injury, surgery, illness, accident, amputation, spinal cord injury, and any number of life altering conditions. I am an occupational therapist. I am sure that Shelia at some point worked with an occupational therapist. You may not understand who we are but at least give us the credit we are due. Thank you.

    September 29, 2011 at 07:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Glenn Dawson

    Until now I knew no one personally that had this disease. This disease crippled me several years ago and has left me in continual pain. It settled in all my joints and also affect various glands. I had gone to Texas to my sons funeral. The Doctors said my immune system was compromised by deep grief in the loss of my son.
    How wonderful that this woman has been able to over come so much. Thank you for this inspiring story. Are there others out there that have had this disease? Are there forums to communicate?

    September 29, 2011 at 11:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Jane Bruesch OTR

    Linda Harrigan, Brandon Earnest and Michael Reed said it well. I have been an occupational therapist for 36 years, and it is time that we are recognized for what we do, especially by people like Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who reported the story on TV, and who as a neuro surgeon, should certainly know and be an advocate of occupational therapy.

    Congratulations to Sheila, you are an inspiration, as are the pediatric clients that i work with every day. Your strength and will power are amazing.

    October 1, 2011 at 09:19 | Report abuse | Reply
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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.