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How The Gift of Tendon Transfers Changed My Life

It had been 9 years since my spinal cord injury. I had just graduated with my master’s degree in counseling psychology. Although I was uncertain of my future career, I was sure of one thing: I was taking a year off to have a series of surgeries called tendon transfers.

As a C6-7 complete quad, I had no hand function and no tricep on my right side. I needed assistance with the most basic activities.

The Introduction

One night my mom met Sharon Shaw in a Bible study. When she came home that night my mom said, “Sharon thinks you should talk to her husband about tendon transfers.”

I immediately knew it was time.

I had heard about the surgery shortly after my injury. But I wasn’t interested at the time. In all honesty, I didn’t want the scars that would be visible as a result of each surgery. And more importantly, I was holding out hope that I would regain some hand function. But by this time, it was clear I had regained as much function as I was going to.

What Are Tendon Transfers?

Tendon transfers move the tendon of a functioning muscle and surgically places it in a position that allows the transferred muscle to perform a new action in the hand or arm. The tendon transfers a person can have is dependent on one’s level of injury.

In Good Hands

Dr. John Shaw is a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor, as well as an orthopedic surgeon. He is one of a small number of surgeons who performs this surgery in the United States. Every few years he meets with other surgeons from around the globe to discuss this delicate and complicated surgery.

With Dr. Shaw 19 years after my tendon transfers

My 4 Surgeries

The tendon transfers I had required four surgeries. I decided to take the entire year off from work and school since I would be severely limited in what I was capable of doing – including driving.

Tricep

The first tendon transfer was on my right arm. The posterior deltoid muscle was transferred so I could activate it and use it as a tricep. I’d never had any function in my right tricep, which enables the raising of the arm above the head and extending the arm; dressing and transferring are just two of the many ways a tricep is used every day.

After I woke up from surgery, my right arm was in a cast from the top of my shoulder to the tips of my fingers. For six weeks I needed help with everything. The cast was literally tied to my power chair to keep the weight of it from pulling me over. (I think Dr. Shaw made the cast heavy on purpose, knowing I’d be tempted to “cheat” if I could move it!)

Grip and Pinch

I had three more surgeries, each followed by four weeks in a cast and several weeks of occupational therapy. Two of the surgeries gave me a pinch in both thumbs by transferring the brachioradialis muscle. The final surgery gave me the ability to grip with my left hand by using the middle wrist muscle.

The Results: Independence

Because of the surgeries I can pick up a book, grasp a water bottle with my left hand, and securely hold silverware, makeup brushes and a toothbrush without using adaptive devices.

Transferring independently in and out of bed, dressing, fastening my bra, and grabbing a pan and spatula to cook dinner are just a few of the ways tendon transfers gave me independence.

Each year at Christmas, I remember the gift of independence that Dr. Shaw gave me by wrapping Christmas presents.

As for the scars I was so worried about? They are barely visible thanks to Dr. Shaw’s attentiveness to my concerns.

If you’d like to see my tendon transfers in action, watch the following videos:

If you have had tendon transfers or nerve transfers, share your experience below. Too few people know about this incredible procedure.

3 thoughts on “How The Gift of Tendon Transfers Changed My Life”

  1. I had the posterior deltoid to tricep and the brachioradialis to flexor pollicis longus transfers on one arm only about 25 years (or more) ago. Getting the surgery was perhaps one of the most fruitful things I’ve done since becoming paralyzed. It gave me additional function to do things I never could have done without the tendon transfers and I’ve reaped the benefits for decades. As a C-5/6 quad, I probably cannot do many of the things with the transfers that you can do but it’s still giving me the ability to do countless small tasks with the transfers every day that I would otherwise be asking others for help with. The transfers also made me much more independent in the corporate workplace during the decades I was a manager than I might have been and they deserve get a good deal of credit for my professional successes. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Jenny
    Thank you so much!!
    You are an amazing woman.
    I’m glad I reached out on The Spinal Cord Injury Group. Just when I feel down, out and hopeless, I find out that there’s hope after all.
    I just realized that you were very young when you had your injury. I was 23 when I got injured. My level was C8-T1. 35 yrs ago.
    About 3 yrs ago I lost use of my dominant hand and I suffered 3 falls from my wheelchair which resulted in a broken ankle, tibia and a broken femur bone.
    April 3rd I got the mitrofanoff surgery.
    After 3 weeks I got the tubes removed to find out that my leg was broken due to my leg being strapped in stirrups.
    I didn’t realized my leg was broken because I can’t feel pain.
    About 5 days later I went to the ER because my leg was warm to the touch, started swelling and bruising but I couldn’t feel the pain.
    This all has put me in depression and I am trying to pull myself out.
    Thanks again for responding and giving me another direction to look into.

    1. Patricia, Hang in there. Life with SCI can definitely take its toll. Here’s to great hopes for 2019 being a better year!

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