FORT WORTH — Raising a flag for National Donate Life Month is an amazing accomplishment for Ronnie Thurman. Two years ago, his right hand belonged to someone else.
"My hand is alive and well," Thurman said. "It gets a little stronger all the time. It's pretty wonderful to have a hand like that; you can't say what an act of kindness it is."
The 58-year-old farmer lost his own right hand in a combine accident years before. He received a hand transplant on February 16, 2012 from 22-year-old Ian Heidemann of Keller, who died at John Peter Smith Hospital after a car accident.
Heidemann's parents said their son wanted to be an organ donor.
"Ian would give his right hand to help anybody," said his proud mother, Janis. "And he did."
At a meeting at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth on Tuesday, the Heidemanns and Thurmans joined experts to talk about a new hand transplant program at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Heidemann's was the first hand ever retrieved by LifeGift, the organ procurement organization for North, Southeast, and West Texas. His was only the second hand ever donated in Texas.
The hand was transported for surgery to Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. Experts hope very soon to perform those operations in North Texas.
Hand transplantation is still considered experimental, though rapid progress is being made.
With a large veteran and amputee population in North Texas, there is also a growing need. The UT Southwestern hand transplant program is the only one in the South-Central portion of the United States. The team has already successfully reattached limbs to patients involved in accidents.
"We have the patient population," said Dr. Tae Chong, part of the UT Southwestern hand transplant team. "And so to be able to be offer it to them is why we brought this here."
Ian Heidemann donated a heart, kidneys, lungs, pancreas, liver, corneas, and other tissue for dozens of people in need.
Rob and Janis Heidemann admit it was a bit odd being asked to donate their son's hand. Janis said her first thought was of Frankenstein.
Thanks to months of painstaking rehabilitation, Thurman is now able to use his right hand to perform all the work involved in running his farm. He has even taken up golf again.
"It's an honor," said Rob Heidemann after shaking Ron's hand. "I just can't shake it enough!"