(NEW YORK) — It’s the simplest thing, the grasp of one hand in another. But Lindsay Ess will never see it that way, because her hands once belonged to someone else.
Growing up in Texas and Virginia, Ess, 29, was always one of the pretty girls. She went to college, did some modeling and started building a career in fashion, with an eye on producing fashion shows.
Then, she lost her hands and feet.
When she was 24 years old, Ess had just graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University’s well-regarded fashion program when she developed a blockage in her small intestine from Crohn’s Disease. After having surgery to correct the problem, an infection took over and shut down her entire body. To save her life, doctors put her in a medically-induced coma. When she came out of the coma a month later, still in a haze, Ess said she knew something was wrong with her hands and feet.
“I would look down and I would see black, almost like a body that had decomposed,” she said.
The infection had turned her extremities into dead tissue. Still sedated, Ess said she didn’t realize what that meant at first.
“There was a period of time where they didn’t tell me that they had to amputate, but somebody from the staff said, ‘Oh honey, you know what they are going to do to your hands, right?’ That’s when I knew,” she said.
After having her hands and feet amputated, Ess adapted. She learned how to drink from a cup, brush her teeth and even text on her cellphone with her arms, which were amputated just below the elbow.
Despite her progress, Ess said she faced challenges being independent. Her mother, Judith Aronson, basically moved back into her daughter’s life to provide basic care, including bathing, dressing and feeding. Having also lost her feet, Ess needed her mother to help put on her prosthetic legs.
Ess said she found that her prosthetic arms were a struggle.
“These prosthetics are s—,” she said. “I can’t do anything with them. I can’t do anything behind my head. They are heavy. They are made for men. They are claws, they are not feminine whatsoever.”
For the next couple of years, Ess exercised diligently as part of the commitment she made to qualify for a hand transplant, which required her to be in shape.
Ess had to wait for a donor. Dr. Scott Levin, her orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said it was preferable if Ess’ donor hands were female, and had a size and skin color that matched hers.
Once one was found, two separate teams of surgeons, one dedicated to the left hand, the other to the right, worked for nearly 12 hours to perform an operation so cutting-edge that surgeons have only attempted it about 60 times in the past 15 years.
After the surgery, Ess was in a cocoon of bandages. Levin said the initial signs for recovery were good.
“This is more than we could ever hope for,” he said. “Her blood pressure is good, all the parameters related to how to blood flow in and out of her new arms. This is, if you will, a picture perfect course so far.”
Less than a month after her surgery, Ess was out of the ICU and working on a therapy regime. The skin color of her new hands and arms wasn’t exactly the same as her upper arms. They still looked like they belonged to someone else.
“The first couple of days I refused to look at them,” Ess said. “It was kind of like one of those scary movie moments. I’m too scared to look because it’s reality [but] I’m so grateful to have them that I just don’t really think about it superficially.”
Four months after her surgery, in January 2012, Ess’ doctors said they continued to be amazed at her recovery. They said they didn’t expect her to have fine motion control for another 12 to 18 months, but her muscles were reacting well. She could even pick up lightweight objects.
In February, Ess was allowed to go home for the first time since the surgery five months before. Levin said the prognosis for both hands couldn’t be better. Even so, rejection was still a huge concern.
Tune into a special edition of ABC’s Nightline, To Hold Again, Friday at 11:35 p.m. ET to find out what happens to Ess and how she moves forward.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio