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In God’s Hands

By Staff | Feb 11, 2009

Jeff Kepner (c) is to undergo historic bi-lateral hand transplant. He is husband of the former Valarie Brittain (l) who is the daughter of local residents Arlene and Jim Brittain. Also in photo is daughter Jordan.

It was back in May, 1999, that Jeff Kepner suddenly became critically ill. He was finally diagnosed by the doctors at the Medical College of Georgia, in Augusta, Georgia, with a Strep A infection that quickly spread throughout his body. It affected his liver and kidneys, shutting them down, and creating Toxic Shock and Sepsis. The blood flow to Jeff’s hands and feet shut down as his body worked to fight the infection. Although Jeff survived the infection, both hands and feet had to be amputated.

In the past 10 years, Jeff has made a complete recovery and uses prosthetic limbs to do most of the activities of daily life. He picks up his daughter Jordan from school and drives to his job at Borders Books. Life had once again taken on a sense of normalcy when his wife, Valarie (Brittain) Kepner, formerly of Muncy, heard about a new Research and Clinical Trial for hand transplantation.

As they learned about the work being done at the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), they began to consider the possibility that Jeff might become a candidate for this miraculous surgery.

When Jeff passed the first phase for entering the program, they learned that the next part would involve traveling to Pittsburgh on three separate occasions to undergo further testing. Their first trip to UPMC was Nov. 19-21. The purpose of that trip was to meet with Dr. W. P. Andrew Lee and his team, and to learn more about the clinical study.

There were a lot of consent forms to be read and signed, and then Jeff began his medical testing. First, the doctors performed an EKG, they took about 40 x-rays, and finally they drew 16 vials of blood from Jeff.

The next trip, during the week of Dec. 15-19, to finish the remaining medical tests, which included psychological tests and an abdominal ultrasound; then a urology test, a CT angiogram, a consult with a cardiologist; then an endoscopy, colonoscopy, and an eye exam. Finally, Jeff underwent a pulmonary function test, before meeting with Dr. Lee and his staff on Thursday, Dec. 18, where they heard of the good test results. Jeff had passed all his tests, and the doctors concluded the visit by taking photographs of Jeff’s arms in preparation for their next and final visit.

The final trip to UPMC was Jan. 21-23. During this trip, Jeff has his chemical stress test and an additional urology test, all with positive results. During this trip, the doctors also prepared for the future surgery by performing a lukaheresis. This is where they separate out Jeff’s white blood cells and freeze them for use in the future transplant, if needed.

Finally, with all the positive test results, Jeff signed his consent to participate in the clinical study and is now officially on the waiting list for a donor, and will be the first bi-lateral hand transplant recipient in the United States. Bi-lateral means that he would receive both hands from a single donor at the same time.

The surgery would take approximately 12-14 hours as two teams work simultaneously, one on each hand.

This is such an unbelievable opportunity. The possibilities that would exist for Jeff with this bilateral hand transplant are endless. He would regain so much mobility and independence that

The Kepners will have to incur a lot of expense associated with the program, expenses that were not covered by any kind of insurance. That’s when the idea for a fundraiser came about. Co-workers of Valarie’s at the Federal Correctional Institution in Edgefield, SC, proposed a raffle for a new hunting

rifle. A scoped Savage 110 rifle was obtained through the Wild Turkey Federation for the raffle prize. The weeks leading up to Christmas saw raffle tickets distributed, bought, and sold, by friends, family, co-workers, and anyone who heard about their need.

Hundreds of people from across the Central Savannah River Area (CSRA) joined together in a fundraising effort to help Jeff Kepner start on his journey to receive new hands. In churches, beauty salons, and auto repair shops, people heard about the need and bought tickets for the raffle. Tickets were sometimes sold in quantities of a hundred or more; donations came from as far away as Pennsylvania; people were helping from FCI Edgefield to the Savannah River Site. Many people were interested in the new Savage 110 hunting rifle that was being raffled. Yet even more people were touched by the purpose of the raffle: to help meet the financial expenses for Jeff Kepner to enter the hand transplant program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Everyone who participated was excited for Jeff and Valarie and the prospect of this miraculous surgery. Many people simply donated money, and altogether over $2700 was raised. These funds helped to offset the expenses for the first three trips Jeff and Valarie had to make to

Pittsburgh, with the remainder going towards the expenses they will incur after the transplant is done.

It has been a long journey to this point, from that traumatic time often years ago. Jeff, Valarie, and their daughter Jordan, have faced a lot of difficulties in that time. Through it all they have been loved and supported by the family and friends of church, of work, and community. We have seen their trust in Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in their courage, faithfulness, and determination. We see in them a hope that God has another miracle in store. Along with Jeff, Valarie and Jordan, we too are hoping and praying for that miraculous touch that comes when we place ourselves in God’s healing hands.

If you would like to donate to make this miraculous journey possible, you can make a donation at any Wachovia Bank under the Jeff and Valarie Kepner Hand Transplant Fund opened at the Wachovia Bank-Branch in Edgefield, SC where it will be deposited in the account.