First man to have double arm transplant 'can now flex his donor biceps'

·4 min read
Felix Gretarsson underwent the first full double arm transplant in the world and can now flex his donor biceps. (SWNS)
Felix Gretarsson underwent the first full double arm transplant in the world and can now flex his donor biceps. (SWNS)

A man who underwent the world's first full double arm transplant is celebrating being able to flex his biceps for the first time in over 20 years. 

Felix Gretarsson, 49, had to have his arms removed in 1998 after they were set on fire when he was electrocuted while trying to fix a power line.

He underwent 54 operations after the accident while in a three-month-long coma, including having his arms removed to save his life.

The 49-year-old, from Iceland, tracked down a world-renowned surgeon and begged him to perform a double arm transplant, which had never been attempted before, moving halfway across the world to be in line.

Gretarsson underwent a double arm and shoulder transplant in January this year, on the 23-year anniversary of his accident.

Gretarsson, 49, was electrocuted while trying to fix a power line and both his arms were set on fire. (SWNS)
Gretarsson, 49, was electrocuted while trying to fix a power line and both his arms were set on fire. (SWNS)
Gretarsson's arms had to be amputated after he was electrocuted as they kept getting infected. (SWNS)
Gretarsson's arms had to be amputated after he was electrocuted as they kept getting infected. (SWNS)

Six months on from the 15-hour operation, and after hundreds of hours of rehabilitation work, he has declared the surgery a success as he can now move his arms and even flex his biceps. 

He is now looking forward to being able to hug his family again for the first time. 

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Speaking about how it felt to wake up with new arms, he said: "It was like there was two trucks parked on each of my shoulders.

Gretarsson, who now lives in Lyon in France, added: "The feeling in the nerves can be a little painful when they grow.

Gretarsson says his bicep muscles are already working after the surgery. (SWNS)
Gretarsson says his bicep muscles are already working after the surgery. (SWNS)

He added: "If you poke my arm I can feel the nerves inside even if I can't feel the skin.

"I am moving the elbow in water, my bicep is now working and that's only five months after.

"I am so hopeful that I am going to be able to move my hands as well which nobody expected - except me."

Gretarsson's accident happened when he grabbed the wrong wire while trying to fix a line that carried electricity to power 500 homes in January 1998.

He was electrocuted and fell 32ft to the ground, breaking his back in three places and fracturing his neck. His arms were also set on fire. 

His colleagues rushed to a nearby river to gather water in their helmets to put the flames out and the last thing he remembers before losing consciousness was them trying to keep him calm.

While he was unconscious surgeons initially amputating his arms above the elbow, but eventually had to remove more due to infections. 

The father-of-two yearned for his missing arms for years. (SWNS)
The father-of-two yearned for his missing arms for years. (SWNS)

Gretarsson woke up three months later with no arms and later went on to become reliant on drugs and alcohol. 

He lost his career, long-time girlfriend, and couldn't see his daughters Rebekka Rut and Diljá Gudmundsdóttir, now 27 and 23.

Despite trying rehab, he ended up needing a liver transplant and was told he would only be eligible if he could sober up for a year. 

The father-of-two went on to get sober from alcohol and drugs, but still yearned for a transplant.

After seeing a TV advert in 2007 for a lecture at the University of Iceland by renowned surgeon Dr Jean-Michel Dubernard, most famous for performing the first successful hand transplant in 1998, he went to find him and quizzed him on the possibility of full arm transplants. 

Gretarsson is recovering well after the pioneering surgery. (SWNS)
Gretarsson is recovering well after the pioneering surgery. (SWNS)

Dr Dubernard said there was a possibility, but he would need to move to France so his team to do the appropriate preparations.

Four years later, surgeons accepted his application, and Felix launched a nationwide fundraising campaign in Iceland to help pay for the €200,000 operation.

In 2013, he moved from Iceland to Lyon with his parents Grétar Felixson and Gudlaug Thors Ingvadóttir, 74 and 70, and the search began for a potential donor.

During that time, he met his now-wife Sylwia Gretarsson, 33, at a bar in Lyon and then on 11 January this year, he got the news that a suitable donor had been found.

The next day - on the 23-year anniversary of his accident - he went to Hopital Edouard Herriot to have the rugery,

He is now making great progress, and doctors have told him that nerves grow on average a millimetre every day, so estimate they will reach his elbow in a year, and his hands in two.

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