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Face and Hand Transplants: Eight Things to Know

VCA stands for Vascularized Composite Allograft organ transplants, which are made up of multiple types of tissue including skin, bone, nerves, and blood vessels. Examples of VCA organ transplants include face, hands and abdominal wall. As of January 2018, less than 200 VCA organ transplants have been performed around the world.

icon of a yellow handThe VCA transplants that you probably hear about most often are hand, arm, and face transplants. But they can also include the larynx, genitalia, the abdominal wall, and other body parts.

icon of a yellow faceVCA transplants can restore abilities and independence in ways that artificial limbs cannot. These transplants can completely transform lives.

icon of a parent holding a childHand, arm, and double hand transplants are very complicated. Bones have to be fixed onto the arm; arteries, and veins must be reattached; and tendons and nerves need to be repaired. The medical and surgical team can include dozens of professionals and the surgery can take up to 16 hours to perform.

icon of a clockFull face and partial face transplants also require teams of doctors and many hours to perform — how long depends on the recipient’s injury or illness. For example, if the mouth and jaw need to be replaced, then teeth, bone, tongue, chin, and skin also might need to be transplanted, increasing the complexity of the process.

icon of a mirrorThe answer is yes and no. Yes, skin characteristics such as moles, freckles, and scars will be visible on the recipient. However, since the recipient’s underlying bone structure may be different from the donor’s, any resemblance will likely be minimal.

icon of two people with arrows pointing from each to the otherCriteria for matching donors and recipients in a traditional transplant also apply for VCA, such as compatible blood and tissue types. VCA also requires matching other features such as skin color and tone and body size — and gender.

icon of a pill bottleYes, there is a risk of rejection, just as any organ transplant. Patients could be on anti-rejection medication for the rest of their lives. Rehabilitation with physical therapy and occupational therapy (and speech therapy for face transplant patients) can be a full-time job for years. And, there can be various other complications, such as infections, bleeding, and scars, anytime a person undergoes a surgical procedure.

icon of two people, one of whom is holding a laptopWhen you sign up as an organ, eye, and tissue donor, you’re not automatically authorizing a VCA donation. VCA donations are handled individually after your death and your family makes that decision. It is important to share your wishes to become a VCA donor with your family.

You can help educate people about the wonderful things VCAs make possible by sharing social graphics, web banners, and other outreach materials. Check out the selection and download your assets here.

Featured Content

This video tells the story of Brendan Marrocco, a double-arm transplant recipient.