When Shayna Sturtevant and her mother went to apply for Shayna’s driver’s license when she was 18, she eagerly signed up to become an organ donor.
“If she could help somebody, she wanted to do that,” said Debra Wyant, Shayna’s mother.
In September 2016, Sturtevant, a 21-year-old Norton Shores resident, died after developing a brain abscess stemming from an ear infection.
In her death, she became the first hand transplant donor for Gift of Life Michigan, the state’s federally designated organ and tissue donation program. Others received Sturtevant’s kidneys, liver, lungs and pancreas.
Wyant said the day after her daughter was declared brain dead, she learned there was a match for Sturtevant’s hands. The organization needed special permission for hand donations.
“You want my what?” Wyant recalled saying, caught off guard by the request. “I knew that Shayna would want to hold her 11/2-year-old son. If she can’t hold him, she’d want someone to hold a loved one. The gift of touch is so amazing.”
The procedure took place at Gift of Life’s Ann Arbor surgical center. The transplant was successful, according to Gift of Life. Due to privacy laws, the organization does not release details about recipients.
“This may not be ‘life-saving’ by definition, but if you can imagine life without your hands it must be incredibly life-altering,” said Dorrie Dils, CEO of Gift of Life, in a statement. “We are extremely grateful that Shayna’s family recognized this truly special gift. We hope they find comfort knowing she was a hero to others. And we wish for the continued recovery of all of Shayna’s recipients.”
Wyant said she has dealt with the loss of her daughter by telling people about her.
“This is something she’s done and I wanted people to know,” Wyant said. “She’s definitely our hero. All the other families she touched that received her organs, they don’t have to feel this grief that I do. She did that.”
According to Gift of Life, hand donation and transplantation is a lengthy procedure that involves the transplantation of skin, bone, blood vessels, muscles, nerves and connective tissue. The program tries, officials said, to match the recipient’s hand size and skin tone with that of the donor’s.
Since 1999, 30 people have received hand transplants in the United States, including 18 single-hand transplants and 12 double-hand transplants, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
“This is one more example of the advances being made in medicine,” Dils said. “But the foundation for the advances is the selflessness of donors and their families to say yes to helping and saving others.”
Hand transplantation is relatively rare and involves using nerves from the recipient regenerating into the transplanted organ so that the recipient can begin feeling sensations, such as hot or cold, soft or hard, pressure or pain. Patients can move a new hand relatively soon, but how quickly they regain feeling and sensations vary, researchers say, according to the Associated Press.
In 2006, a Bay City man who lost his right hand in an accident 30 years earlier became the third successful hand transplant recipient in the United States. In 2011, a Connecticut woman who was mauled by a chimpanzee and received the third full face transplant in the United States also received a double hand transplant. Doctors later had to remove the hands due to complications that developed when Charla Nash caught pneumonia.
Wyant said she plans to send a letter to the hand recipient through Gift of Life. She hopes the recipient is able to do things again that people can take for granted, such as cook for their family or hold a loved one’s hand. She also plans on sharing more about her daughter.
“She was stubborn, very stuck to her guns,” she said. “Very sweet and wanted to help anybody, everybody. Awesome girl. Best mom in the world. She loved everybody with her whole heart.”