A man who underwent the world’s first double arm and shoulder transplant has said he can now flex his biceps and can’t wait to be able to hug his wife and grandkids.
Felix Gretarsson, 49, lost both of his arms in an electrical accident in 1998, which saw the limbs set alight after he was shocked while trying to fix a powerline.
The Icelander said he can now flex his biceps and just wants to be able to hug his wife and grandkids after undergoing dozens of operations.
The historic 15-hour transplant was carried out at the Edouard-Herriot hospital in Lyon, France in January this year by teams from five hospitals.
After his accident, doctors placed Gretarsson in a three-month-long coma and carried out 54 operations, including removing his badly burned arms.
He began abusing drugs and alcohol to cope, undergoing two liver transplants in less than a year, before tracking down world renowned surgeon Jean-Michel Dubernard who gave him hope a transplant might be possible.
Dubernaud, who died earlier this month, was known for having conducted the world’s first hand transplant, first double hand transplant, and first partial face transplant.
Gretarsson relocated to Lyon, where medics from Dubernaud’s team are based, to begin a years-long wait for a suitable donor.
Eventually, one was found and on January 12, 2021 – the 23rd anniversary of his accident, he received the transplants under lead surgeon Aram Gazarian.
Six months on from the enormous procedure, with hundreds of hours of rehabilitation work under his belt, Gretarsson can flex his bicep -something Gazarian had said would be a ‘life-changer’ if he was able to achieve.
Felix Gretarsson, 49, is recovering well after undergoing the world’s first double arm and shoulder transplant in January
The Icelander (centre) said he can now flex his biceps and just wants to be able to hug his wife and grandkids after undergoing dozens of operations
The 49-year-old (pictured in this file photo) lost both of his arms in an electrical accident in 1998, which saw the limbs set alight after he was shocked while trying to fix a powerline
‘I am moving the elbow in water, my bicep is now working and that’s only five months after,’ he said.
‘I just noticed the veins in my arms are starting to expand in the heat and that doesn’t happen unless the automatic nervous system is working.
‘I am so hopeful that I am going to be able to move my hands as well which nobody expected – except me.’
Now, Gretarsson’s goal is to be able to hug his wife and children for the first time in decades, and to hold his grandchildren for the very first time.
Gretarsson recalled the ‘excruciating’ pain he felt after waking up from the transplant operation.
‘The first thing I thought was “who the f*** does this on purpose?” Because the pain when I woke up was so excruciating.
‘It was like there was two trucks parked on each of my shoulders.’
He said his experience of hospitalisation following his accident helped mentally prepare him for the challenges of rehabilitation.
‘Having been through hospitalisation before I kind of knew the first time it feels like the end of the world and that you’re going to be a patient for the rest of your life.
‘But when you recover you know it’s just temporary this s*** will pass so I put my heels down and put my head down,’ Gretarsson said.
He added that the feeling in the nerves is ‘a little painful’ as they grow, saying: ‘If you poke my arm I can feel the nerves inside even if I can’t feel the skin.’
On the day of his accident, Felix, then an electrician, was sent out to fix a power line carrying enough electricity to power 500 homes.
He said there was confusion about the exact point of the line that needed fixing and he grabbed the wrong wire by mistake, suffering a massive shock which sent him falling 32ft to the ground.
‘I didn’t remember until years after, but I fell down and I remember the only thing I felt was pain in the belly and confusion,’ Gretarsson said.
Gretarsson’s rehabilitation is expected to take years but doctors are pleased with his progress
The historic 15-hour transplant was carried out at the Edouard-Herriot hospital in Lyon, France in January this year by teams from five hospitals. Pictured: Photos show where Gretarsson’s new arms join his body
Nerves grow on average a millimetre each day and doctors estimate Gretarsson’s will reach his elbow in a year, and his hands in two. Pictured: Gretarsson following the successful transplant
‘With a trauma like this the body shuts off. I had no feeling of burning arms and broken back. It was just complete shock.’
As well as breaking his back in three places and fracturing his neck, the shock set Gretarsson’s arms on fire.
His colleagues rushed to a nearby river to gather water in their helmets to put the flames out and the last thing Gretarsson remembers before losing consciousness was the soothing words of his workmate who was trying to keep him calm.
Surgeons put a metal plate in his spine, and he was later told he swelled up so much his family could ‘not see where the head stopped and the shoulders started’.
‘They operated 54 times – they initially amputated me just above the elbow but I constantly had infections so they were chopping a little bit more and more and were trying to save something,’ he said.
While in the coma, doctors said Gretarsson’s heart rate rose whenever Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On came on the radio.
‘This accident happened on a Monday and the Saturday before I saw the movie ‘Titanic’ in the cinema,’ he explained.
When he woke from an induced coma three months later, he was relieved – despite his injuries and the loss of his arms – to discover he had not been completely paralysed by the fall.
Seven months later, he was moved to a rehabilitation centre where he became reliant on other substances after his pain medication was reduced.
‘I had smoked some weed before but this is where it kind of went just took over,’ he recalled.
Gretarsson lost his career, his long-time girlfriend, and couldn’t see his two young daughters, Rebekka and Diljá, now 27 and 23.
He spent the money he’d won from his former company’s insurers on his addiction after an unsuccessful stint in a specialist drug rehab.
His accident left Gretarsson in a coma for three months. Pictured: Gretarsson in rehabilitation following his transplant
After waking from his accident, Gretarsson became addicted to drugs and alcohol and required two liver transplants. Pictured: Gretarsson in rehabilitation following his transplant
While he had high-tech prosthetics, Gretarsson always hoped a transplant might be possible Pictured: Gretarsson in rehabilitation following his transplant
While waiting for a transplant in Lyon, Gretarsson met his wife Sylwia. Pictured: Gretarsson in rehabilitation following his transplant
Doctors said his liver was so badly damaged that he would need a transplant – but would only be eligible if he could sober up for a year.
‘That was kind of my moment of clarity and things changed and I went to a rehab and got my s*** together,’ Gretarsson said.
‘I started to face the facts that I am going to have to somehow live with this disability – I was just not dealing with anything.
‘From there my life went straight up, I bought myself a little company, a flat, a car I could drive with my feet and life started to be good.’
An initial transplant in June 2002 was unsuccessful, leading to another later that year, but despite top-of-the-range prosthetics, Gretarsson still longed for his real arms.
In 2007, he saw an advert for a lecture by Dubernard at the University of Iceland. He rang up every hotel to find out where the surgeon was staying and went to meet him in the lobby, quizzing him on the future possibility of a full double arm and shoulder transplant.
Dubernard said there was a possibility, but that Gretarsson would need to move to France so his team could do the appropriate preparations.
Four years later, surgeons accepted his application, and Gretarsson launched a nationwide fundraising campaign in Iceland to help pay for the €200,000 (£171,501) operation.
In 2013, with his parents, Grétar Felixson and Gudlaug Thors Ingvadóttir, now 74 and 70, Dubernard moved from Iceland to Lyon, with the search for a potential donor kicking off in 2017.
During the wait, Felix met his wife Sylwia Gretarsson, 33, at a bar in Lyon.
Dubernaud was given hope after tracking down a world renowned transplant surgeon who told him to move to Lyon so his team could begin preparing. Pictured: Gretarsson before his accident
Gretarsson is a father of two and also has two grandchildren, who he says he can’t wait to hug for the first time. Pictured: Gretarsson before his accident
As well the burns to his arms, the electrical accident caused Gretarsson’s back to break in three places, requiring a metal plate to be inserted
After years, and many disappointments when the families of potential donors refused, Gretarsson had his double arm and shoulder transplant in January. Pictured: Gretarsson after his transplant surgery
‘I was drinking my sparkling water at my table and I had prosthesis with a hook on the right side and people usually are uncomfortable about asking.
‘She came genuinely curious like nothing was more normal and we just ended up chatting for hours and that’s kind of how it started,’ he recalled.
On January 11, 2021 Gretarsson received the call he had been waiting years for – a donor had been found.
‘I’d had phone calls before that we had a potential donor but when it came to get the family accept they’d always refuse,’ he said.
‘The disappointment of [hearing] that they were going to bury these arms in the ground to rot instead of giving them to you; I was crushed.’
The following day, he went to Hopital Edouard Herriot to have the double arm and shoulder transplant after which he was laying on his back in recovery for six weeks.
In March Gretarsson was moved to rehabilitation and despite some complications, including his body attempting to reject the new limbs twice and a painful skin fungus, he is making excellent progress.
Doctors explained that nerves grow on average a millimetre each day and estimate they’ll reach his elbow in a year, and his hands in two.
The grandad-of-two said: ‘I have achieved something that wasn’t supposed to be possible if I wouldn’t have pushed it and pushed.
‘It took a long time, but just because I was certain it would happen I didn’t know who was going to do it or how, I didn’t know where the money would come from.
‘But when the goal is clear you always find a way.
‘Sometimes the bad things that happen to us are the reason the good things can happen to us further down the line.
‘If I hadn’t lost my arms I wouldn’t be living in France with my wife today.
‘So many good things you can take from this – this is what has kept me going.
‘There’s always a silver lining to everything.’
Pictured: Gretarsson (front row, left) with staff from the Edouard Herriot Hospital in Lyon, where he had his transplant surgery