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.


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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.