In July 2015, Zion Harvey, now 9, became the first kid in the world to get a double hand transplant

By Nicole Weisensee Egan
Updated August 23, 2016 02:00 PM
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Gillian Laub

Thirteen months after becoming the first child in the world to get a double hand transplant, Zion Harvey can throw a football, feed himself a slice of pizza and pick up and hold his 3-year-old little sister Zoé – none of which he could do before the groundbreaking surgery.

Most importantly to Zion, 9, he can play every sport he ever wanted to play – which is the whole reason he wanted the surgery in the first place.

He was tired of always being picked last – or not at all – when it came time to choose teams at school.

“Now I can play soccer and I can play football and I can play all these other sports and they can’t isolate me out anymore,” he tells PEOPLE exclusively.

His mom, Pattie Ray, could not be more grateful and happy with the outcome.

“Just seeing him where he is today makes it all worth it,” says Ray, 27, a phlebotomist, who is also working toward getting a degree in nursing. “I feel blessed.”

They are both grateful to the donor’s family, who has remained anonymous but released a statement Tuesday.

“We always felt our son was a miracle and wanted his life to be a gift to others,” read the statement from the family of his donor.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, doctors from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Penn Medicine and Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia will hold a press conference with Zion and his mom and show the world all that he can now do and also release a video of his journey.

“He has exceeded our every expectation,” Dr. L. Scott Levin, an orthopedic and plastic surgeon who heads the hand transplant programs at CHOP and Penn Medicine, tells PEOPLE exclusively. “He eats. He writes. He goes to the bathroom. He dresses himself. He plays baseball. He can do pull-ups on a bar.

For more on Zion Harvey and his amazing story, check out this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

“This is really what his operation and this procedure was designed to do,” he says, “not to merely transplant hands, but create functional hands that allow Zion to integrate with his world like you and I integrate with our world.”

While he still can’t quite swing from the monkey bars – as he famously told his hand surgeon he wanted to do one day – he’s almost there.

“He’ll do that eventually,” says Dr. Levin. “There’s no question in my mind about it. No question. In terms of his function, he is exquisitely functional, and is showing us more and more each day.”

Zion lost his hands and his feet (and both his kidneys) to a severe staph infection when he was just two years old. He spent most of the year in a hospital fighting for his life. When he was 4, his mother donated one of her kidneys to him.

Since the surgery, he’s had nothing but success. On August 2, he even threw out the first pitch at a Baltimore Orioles game.

RELATED VIDEO: Get inspired by 9-Year-Old Double Hand Transplant Zion Harvey!

In the midst of all the joy, there is sorrow as well. Zion’s stepfather, Kevon Gant, 29, was killed in a still-unsolved shooting in Baltimore in May. But Ray is moving from their home in Owings Mills, Maryland, to North Carolina, where she has family, later this week, something she and her late husband had been trying to do for years.

“My husband and I had been planning to move as soon as our lease was up at the end of August,” she says. “Now we still want to go. It’s time for something new.”

But she and Zion are fighters. They still plan to keep sharing his story. They have already done two speaking engagements and plan to keep doing more.

“I love to do them because I feel like we are giving back and we are making people aware of something that the world is not aware of,” she says.

And one day he may have to share his stardom. Zion may be the first kid in the world to get new hands but Dr. Levin hopes he won’t be the last.

“We plan on moving the pediatric program forward,” he says. “We have several patients who are currently undergoing evaluation.”