How a muscle transplant from my leg helped me move my arm again

Thousands of Britons lose the use of a hand or limb after damaging nerves in accidents, but surgery to transfer a muscle and nerves can restore movement. Simon Harbinson, 24, a buyer for a drinks company from Guisborough, Yorks, tells CAROL DAVIS his story.

The patient   

Simon Harbinson, 24, tells CAROL DAVIS his story

Simon Harbinson, 24, tells CAROL DAVIS his story

Riding my motorbike back from work early one morning in January 2013, I turned a corner, hit the kerb and landed in the road.

I was taken by ambulance to the James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough and when I came to two days later, doctors told me I’d cracked four discs in my neck, damaged my right shoulder, punctured a lung, broken my jaw and had a brain haemorrhage. They put me in a full body brace while I healed.

But while the other injuries mended, after four months, I still couldn’t raise my right arm. The doctor said I had damaged nerves in my shoulder and there was no chance of getting back movement or feeling in it, or my right arm, without more help.

I had loads of physiotherapy and hydrotherapy, but still that arm wouldn’t do anything. It felt permanently numb, and I couldn’t ride my motorbike any more, or even do basic things like cook and clean for myself, or button my coat.

So five months after the accident, I was referred to Leeds General Infirmary to see a specialist surgeon for tests and to discuss surgical options. MRI scans showed I’d severed nerves in the shoulder; the surgeon did an exploratory operation to try to repair them using nerves taken from the back of my calf.

But although I could now feel my tricep in my upper arm, I still couldn’t feel my lower right arm or shoulder (or bend my elbow). I’d been a lab technician in the food industry, tasting and checking drinks, but being unable to bend and raise my arm, I couldn’t do it any more.

The company found me a data inputting job and I worked my way up to my current buyer’s job, which is fantastic as I was basically sitting in front of a computer. But it was frustrating not to be able to do normal things like play five-a-side with my brother.

I was just 19 and didn’t want my arm to stay that way for life.

My surgeon explained it was likely the signals from the new nerve weren’t reaching my shoulder muscle but she could try a rarely used procedure where they’d replace both the muscle and attached nerves, rather than just the nerves.

I agreed and had the four-hour operation in March 2015 to remove the gracilis muscle, and connected nerves, which helps to move the leg.

This was then stitched into my arm. I woke in a sling, which I had to wear for eight weeks while the arm healed.

I had a 30cm wound in my inner thigh and a 20cm one running from my shoulder to just above my elbow. The pain from the leg bothered me, but morphine helped.

I agreed and had the four-hour operation in March 2015 to remove the gracilis muscle, and connected nerves, which helps to move the leg

I agreed and had the four-hour operation in March 2015 to remove the gracilis muscle, and connected nerves, which helps to move the leg

When the sling was removed after eight weeks, I had physio and hydrotherapy fairly soon after — the heated water of the hydrotherapy pool kept my muscles warm, making it easier to exercise and this time I felt a slight twitch in my right arm — it was fantastic. Though my arm was still incredibly weak, it showed movement was starting to come back. I had two years of physio and hydrotherapy, and gradually the movement came back into my arm almost completely.

Now I can cook and do everything for myself, and while I can’t ride my motorbike, I’ve learned to drive an automatic car. I took up running while I was recovering, and now I’m back to target shooting with my dad, too.

I haven’t noticed any change in my leg movements either. The improvement has been amazing.

The surgeon

Grainne Bourke is a consultant in hand and plastic surgery at Leeds Teaching

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