Felix Gretarsson, 48, was an electrician working in his home country of Iceland 23 years ago when a miscommunication with coworkers led to him accidentally grabbing a live wire. The 11,000-volt shock threw Gretarsson to the frozen ground more than 30 feet below. Not only did he break his back and neck in three places, but his arms caught fire as well.
"I just remember lying there waiting for the ambulance and feeling pain in my belly because my body had shut out everything else," Gretarsson told Positive News. "I was put to sleep when I got to the hospital, and woke up three months later with no arms."
At first, his arms were amputated just above the elbow, but repeated infections resulted in losing the limbs all the way up to his shoulders. He ended up having 54 operations in the years immediately following the accident.
That's a lot of trauma and pain, and Gretarsson numbed it all with substance abuse. "My therapy was shutting it out with drugs and alcohol and general destruction for the next few years," he said. "I got to a place where they said: 'you are either going to be dead or you do something'."
After getting help from Alcoholics Anonymous and two liver transplants, Gretarsson got a glimmer of hope. A French doctor who had successfully transplanted a hand happened to be lecturing in Iceland in 2007. Gretarsson spoke with him and he agreed to review his case. Gretarrson moved to Lyon, France, to be closer to the transplant doctors who might be able to help him get his arms back.
In Lyon, he met a yoga teacher from Poland named Sylwia. They fell in love, got married, and began a life together with their two dogs as Gretarsson's hopes for an arm transplant sat waiting in the wings.
This January, the phone call came. A suitable donor had been found and the doctors wanted to go ahead with the surgery.
The procedure, the first double arm and shoulder transplant, was billed a success. It will be three years before they'll know exactly how successful the surgery really was, as it takes time—and rehabilitation work—for the nerves to grow and function.
However, Gretarsson's progress is looking incredibly promising. He posts updates on his new arms on Instagram, and in a recent video, he shared how he's able to flex his bicep far earlier than doctors anticipated. He said that doctors had told him before the surgery that nerves grow on average about one millimeter per day, which would mean that after about a year, his nerves would be reaching the elbow, and in two years, may reach his hands.
It's been less than six months since the transplant, and Gretarsoon says he already has some nerve feeling in the forearms. And his voluntary movement of his bicep is incredible, since the lead surgeon had talked about how life-changing just the possibility of being able to bend his elbow would be if the surgery and recovery went well.
Gretarsson keeps an upbeat attitude about his rehabilitation, often making jokes about the transformation his body has undergone. He is also grateful for the gift of modern science.
"I have a Danish liver, French arms – I'm a modern-day Frankenstein," he said to Positive News, adding: "No-one else has ever lost their arms and shoulders, and got them back. I consider myself to be very, very privileged."
Follow Felix Gretarsson on Instagram to see updates on his progress.
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