Sarah Mues awaits unique surgery to restore hands she lost to a deadly infection

By Maureen Harrington
Updated October 28, 2008 07:15 PM

Sarah Mues spends her days like any mother – playing chase and tickle with sons Patrick, 8, and Eric, 3, and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But she never gets to hold their hands: Mues, 30, lost both of her hands, as well as her toes and most of her forearms, 16 years ago to a rare infection known as pneumococcal sepsis.

I just take life day by day, Mues told NBC’s Today in a recent interview.

But now, because of a chance encounter with a doctor, all that may change for Mues, who hopes to become only the fifth person in the U.S. to receive a hand transplant – and the first in the country to have two transplanted hands.

A single parent from Redmond, Wash., Mues was stricken by the infection at 14. She spent 10 days in a coma before recovering, but her forearms, hands and toes had to be amputated. Since then, she has thrived, rejecting prosthetic hands early on and learning to do chores, type, and take care of her sons with just her stumps.

She was visiting her sister in Chicago when the two women were approached by a stranger while having lunch. “We were sitting in a bakery in a little outside café and up comes this man. He said, ‘Hi, I’m Dr. Manders.’ ”

Manders told Mues about Dr. W.P. Andrew Lee, chief of plastic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, whose groundbreaking work with the U.S. Army involves developing new techniques to help soldiers with traumatic injuries – including lost limbs.

If all goes as planned, Mues will get final approval to undergo history-making double transplant surgery in the next weeks, after undergoing psychological testing. She may have to wait up to a year until suitable donor hands become available.

Dr. Lee told Today there are no guarantees. It could be months, or years, before Mues regains all sensation in her new hands; the operation may not be successful.

But Mues accepts that. “The first thing I might want to do if I did get it is maybe to get a manicure,” she laughed. And hug her kids, run her fingers through their hair, and intertwine her fingers with theirs, of course.

“I’m kind of a hand on person, even without hands,” she says.