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After long operation, mother adjusting to hand transplant

For the first time in five years, Emily Fennell has two hands.

The single mother, 26, who lost her right hand in a car accident, showed off her newly donated hand Tuesday while flanked by a team of transplant doctors.

Wearing a protective cast with her fingers poking out, Fennell admitted she's still getting used to it.

"I do feel like it's mine. Slowly but surely, every day it becomes more and more mine," she said.

Fennell received the donor limb in a marathon surgery last month in the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. She had been living with a prosthetic limb, but wanted a hand transplant to better care for her daughter.

During the 14 1/2 -hour operation March 5, a team of nearly 20 surgeons, nurses and support staff grafted a hand from a deceased donor and intricately connected bones, blood vessels, nerves and tendons.

The transplant was the 13th such case in the United States and the first for the hospital, which launched its hand transplant program last year.

With the surgery successful, Fennell begins the long journey of learning to use her transplanted hand.

"Emily hasn't used her hand" in a long time, said Dr. Kodi Azari, the chief surgeon. "The muscles have not worked. They've become weak."

At Fennell's first public appearance Tuesday, she rested her right hand over the left one. When it came time to thank her doctors, she managed to clap her hands.

Fennell's right hand was crushed in 2006 in a rollover accident in which her hand went through the open sunroof of the car in which she was riding.

After the amputation, Fennell learned to use her left hand to do daily chores such as driving, tying her shoelaces and even typing 45 words a minute in her job as an office assistant. Though she wore a prosthesis, she found it bulky and not useful.

Fennell was able to move her new fingers soon after the surgery, but does not yet have feeling in her hand. Doctors said it could take up to a year for the nerves to regenerate before she can feel anything.

For the past month, Fennell has been undergoing extensive rehabilitation in Los Angeles that includes eight hours of occupational therapy a day.

Though Fennell's donated hand never will be as strong as the one she lost, doctors said she should regain about 60 percent of the function of a normal hand with continued therapy.

Like other transplant recipients, Fennell has to take drugs for the rest of her life to prevent rejection. UCLA is testing whether a less-toxic combination of medications is effective.

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