Thirteen young adults who were paralysed in sporting or traffic accidents have had movement in their hands restored through pioneering nerve transfer surgery, enabling them to feed themselves, hold a drink, write and in some cases return to work.
Natasha van Zyl, the Melbourne-based surgeon who leads a research programme that has given some people their lives back, said the patients were able to use their hands and extend their arms from the elbow. “Extending your elbow allows you to push a wheelchair better, helps you to transfer in and out of a car, reach out and do something in space in front of you, shake someone’s hand.
“It allows you to reach above your head, which you need to be able to do because the world is designed for standing-up people. So you can switch a light off, you can get something off a shelf. Hand function is everything you use your hand for. You would just need to tape your hands up for five minutes to experience how frustrating life would be without your hands, without your fingers.”