There’s nothing unusual about what Sarah Mues does during the course of a busy day as the mother of two small boys. She makes their meals, plays tickle games with them, works on her computer and does all the usual household chores. What makes it all amazing is that she does it all without hands.
“I can do pretty much everything,” the effervescent 30-year-old told TODAY’s Amy Robach Tuesday in New York. “It’s just [that] sometimes it takes a little bit more time, and I’m a perfectionist. So it takes me a little bit more time than it would normally without hands.”
Cheating death — at a price
Mues lost her hands 16 years ago when she was stricken with pneumococcal sepsis, a virulent bacterial infection. Doctors told her parents she would die from it, but she didn’t. After 10 days in a coma, she came through — but at a heavy price. Her hands and toes had literally died and turned as black as charcoal. For her to survive, they had to be amputated.
A natural optimist with a great sense of humor, Mues accepted the loss of her hands and half the length of her forearms. Rejecting prosthetic hands, she learned to do everything she used to do with her stumps. She got married and now has two children, Patrick, 8, and Eric, 3.
Still, there are gaps in her life because of her condition. What she misses the most, she said, is “intertwining your fingers. There’s not a feeling like that in the world.”
But that may change soon. Mues has been accepted as a candidate to become only the fifth person in the United States to undergo a hand transplant. She would be the first American woman to receive a transplanted hand, and the first in the world to get two.
Mues didn’t go looking for new hands. They sort of came looking for her, in the person of transplant surgeon Dr. Ernie Manders of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
A fateful encounter
It was total serendipity. Mues had recently gone through a divorce and was now a single mom living on disability in Redmond, Ore. Because she was going through a bit of a rough time, her sister decided she needed to get away, and talked her into taking a trip with her to a big city. Chicago seemed as good a choice as any.
“We were sitting in a bakery in a little outside café thing — it was so adorable,” Mues told Robach while recalling the chance encounter. “And up comes this man. He said, ‘Hi, I’m Dr. Manders.’ ”
Manders had been watching Mues eat a salad, amazed at the dexterity with which she manipulated her utensils without hands. He decided he had to talk to her.
“I don’t mean to intrude,” he told Mues, “but I’d like to introduce myself and tell you a little bit about what I’m doing. I’m not trying to sell you anything, but I am going to a conference tomorrow and there’s a surgeon there who does hand transplants.”
Not a sure thing
It is not yet certain that Mues will be accepted as a candidate. Lee, who appeared with Mues on TODAY, said, “Even though we think that hand transplants can greatly improve or even transform a patient’s life, it’s very important that candidates go through a very rigorous screening process to make sure they’re both physically and psychologically fit for the procedure. In Sarah’s case, it will be another month or two before that process is complete.”
While the surgery will be free, if she is accepted, Mues will have to move to Pittsburgh and live there for as long as a year while she waits for suitable donor hands and arms to become available, and then undergoes the surgery. She has to remain near the hospital because donor hands remain viable for only six to eight hours, and there is no time to fly in for the surgery.
Living on disability payments, Mues doesn’t have the money to pay for her stay, so she has set up a Web site to solicit contributions.
One aspect of the research being done at the University of Pittsburgh is to develop new ways to deal with rejection. “We have developed protocols that allow us to perform transplants with significantly fewer medications, and we plan to apply those protocols to hand transplantation, which could be a major breakthrough for patients such as Sarah,” Lee said.
Robach asked Mues how she is dealing with so much excitement and the possibilities in front of her.
“I just take life day by day,” she said. “Lately it’s been moment by moment, because day by day there’s too much.”
If she does get new hands, what would she do with them?
“The first thing I might want to do if I did get it is maybe to get a manicure,” she laughed.
She also wants to hug her children, run her fingers through their hair and hold their hands. But that could take a while, Lee warned. It takes a long time for nerves to regenerate and bring some sensation to a transplanted hand, and full sensation is not a certain outcome.
“All the patients who have hand transplants have developed what we call protective sensation,” Lee told Robach. “Many patients have developed near-normal sense in their hands. In Sarah’s case, it could be several years before she has feeling in her hands.
“But,” Lee added, “there is definitely a chance.”
Donations to Sarah Mues' transportation and lodging fund should be made out to and sent to:
Sarah Mues and Hands for Sarah Fund
Highland Baptist Church
P.O. Box 297
Redmond, OR 97756