LESS than two years ago incredible Londonderry man Dean Smahon had his feet and fingers amputated after doctors said his chances of surviving the sudden onset of septicemia were less than five per cent.
Now he looks set to make history as the first person in the United Kingdom to benefit from a hand transplant.
The Foyle and Londonderry Old Boy lost both legs from below the shins, as well six fingers and a thumb, after being diagnosed with blood poisoning in October 2010.
Doctors told his girlfriend Kirsty McHale that his blood was “incompatible with life” and that Dean had only a five per cent chance of surviving the illness. They placed him in an induced coma as he fought for his live.
But now in a life-affirming turnaround Dean, aged 50, has passed the first tests for groundbreaking hand transplant surgery and is due for further checks at Leeds General Infirmary, where the operation would be carried out.
“I’m excited. It’s a great opportunity to get closer to where I was before,” said Dean.
The Londonderry exile’s defiance in the face of the shock onset of his debilitating illness in late 2010 is a wonderful testament to the potential of the human spirit.
A former athlete who represented Northern Ireland at javelin and a prominent DJ in Leeds, Dean would have been forgiven for slumping into despondency following his recent trials.
But despite lying in a coma for 11 days, losing six fingers and both feet because of the blood poisoning, and undergoing many operations since, including having his hip joint removed in August to remove the site of the infection which caused his illness, Dean is now preparing to make UK history.
He was called for an appointment about the possibility of having a hand transplant early this year and has since had meetings with surgeons and a clinical psychologist, as well as x-rays and blood tests.
Dean said: “I have got prosthetic legs, but my right hand is very limited. Simple tasks like taking the top of bottles or tying shoelaces are difficult, and it’s frustrating.”
He said medics were positive about his suitability for the operation.
Speaking to the Sentinel about his illness last year Dean, who grew up in the Abercorn Road area before moving to Limavady Road, admitted experiencing severe pain at first,
But he said he always had a positive attitude to life and believed this has played a part in his recovery, and in developing his determination to use the experiences learned through his disability to help others.
“I wouldn’t be a person who gives up easily, ” he said. “I always look at something and ask if it’s achievable, or if it’s silly - and if I think it’s achievable, I go for it. That sort of mindset really helped me.”
He was also affected by a visit to a children’s ward.
He recalled: “There was a little girl who had lost fingers and both her legs and she was in bad shape, and her mother was there, but the little girl was smiling and chatting to her mum.
“There are so many things involved in looking after a child with disabilities and as an adult I could relate to it. That did have a profound effect on me.”
The most difficult thing to face at first was the pain, and accepting that he had lost his feet and fingers.
“The pain drags you down, ” he admitted. “But once you overcome the pain, you get on with rehabilitation and moving forward.
“It was like mourning, like a bereavement really, facing up to the loss.”
“But I still have a pincer movement in my left hand, and that’s what saved me, because without that I would not have been able to go back to DJing. And it means that I can wash myself and so on. Everything is slow but you just get on with it. We hope eventually to get a prosthetic that I can fit tools to.”
It now looks like this hope could soon be realised. If it is it will mark the next step in a remarkable journey of recovery for Dean.