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Woman adjusting to hand transplant

LOS ANGELES -- For the first time in five years, Emily Fennell has two hands.

The 26-year-old single mother, who lost her right hand in a car accident, showed off her newly donated hand yesterday while flanked by a team of transplant doctors.

Wearing a protective cast with her fingers poking out, Fennell admitted she's still getting used to it. "I do feel like it's mine. Slowly but surely, every day it becomes more and more mine," she said.

Fennell received the donor limb in a marathon surgery last month at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. She had been living with a prosthetic limb but wanted a hand transplant to better care for her daughter.

During the 14 1/2-hour operation on March 5, a team of nearly 20 surgeons, nurses and support staff grafted a hand from a deceased donor and intricately connected bones, blood vessels, nerves and tendons.

It was the 13th such transplant in the United States.

With the surgery successful, Fennell begins the long journey of learning to use her transplanted hand.

"Emily hasn't used her hand" in a long time, said chief surgeon Dr. Kodi Azari. "The muscles have not worked. They've become weak."

Fennell's right hand was crushed in 2006 in a rollover accident in which it went through the open sunroof of the car in which she was riding.

After the amputation, she learned to use her left hand to do daily chores such as driving, tying her shoelaces and even typing 45 words a minute in her job as an office assistant. She wore a prosthesis but found it bulky and not useful.

Soon after the surgery, she was able to move her new fingers, but she does not yet have feeling in her hand. Doctors said it could take up to a year for the nerves to regenerate before she can feel anything.

For the past month, Fennell has been undergoing extensive rehabilitation in Los Angeles that includes eight hours of occupational therapy a day. She practices simple tasks such as grasping and gripping objects in an effort to improve her dexterity and gain strength.

Fennell hopes to return to her hometown of Yuba City, Calif., next month to rejoin her 6-year-old daughter and continue rehab at home.

Though Fennell's donated hand will never be as strong as the one she lost, doctors said she should regain about 60 percent of the function of a normal hand with continued therapy. She hopes that means she could tie her hair in a ponytail again, catch a ball and type even faster.

Like other transplant recipients, Fennell has to take drugs for the rest of her life to prevent rejection. UCLA is testing whether a less-toxic combination of medications is effective.

The recipient of the first U.S. hand transplant in 1999 has lived with a donor hand for a little over a decade.

The UCLA operation cost about $800,000, but as it was experimental, the patient did not have to pay.

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