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Station nightclub fire survivor upbeat after hand transplant

Joe Kinan looked down at his left hand and ever so slightly wiggled his fingers.

“It hurts,” he said. He continued to wiggle them anyway, almost incredulous they were there at all.

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Three weeks ago, they were not. On Oct. 7, in a 15-hour procedure, Kinan became the first person to undergo hand transplant surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. He had lost both hands — and suffered other grievous burns — nearly a decade ago in The Station nightclub fire, an inferno that killed 100. Kinan spent nearly a year in hospitals after the fire and has endured at least 122 surgeries.

Friday, he spoke with a sense of reticence about life with a new hand. Kinan has a year of physical therapy ahead, and there is the risk his body could reject it.

“We’ll see how it goes,” the 43-year-old Kinan told reporters before leaving the Boston hospital. “I have a pretty tenacious attitude toward most things. . . . I’m hoping it doesn’t die.’’

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Kinan was among the nearly 200 clubgoers injured Feb. 20, 2003, when pyrotechnics used during a concert ignited soundproofing material in the West Warwick, R.I., club. He suffered severe burns to his upper body and face, the fire stealing his nose and ears. His companion that evening suffocated under the smoke and trampling feet of panicked concertgoers desperate for an exit.

John Tlumacki(/Globe Staff

Joe Kinan was severely burned in the Station nightclub fire and has had numerous sur­-geries. His fiancee, Carrie Pratt, and Dr. Curtis Cetrulo helped him as he left the hospital.

On his personal website, Kinan said the experience forced him to relearn how he does and perceives everything. It is an attitude praised by friends, family, and the legion of doctors and nurses who have been a constant in Kinan’s life for the past nine years.

Flanked at Mass. General on Friday by his fiancee, Carrie Pratt, and surgeon, Dr. Curtis L. Cetrulo Jr., Kinan showed off his new hand, wrapped in a cast and brace, except for the tips of the fingers.

Cetrulo said the surgery, which involved a complicated fusion of nerves, tendons, and bones, and restoration of blood flow, “went as smooth as it could possibly have gone.”

“Everything we did, we did once, and we did it without complication,” Cetrulo said. “He’s already ahead of the curve thus far in getting his function back, so we’re very excited.”

Cetrulo said Kinan’s willingness to be the first hand transplant recipient at the hospital -- and his determination to gain use of the hand — will allow surgeons to improve the operation, benefitting amputees in the future.

“Since the procedure, he’s been an absolute animal when it comes to rehabilitation,’’ the plastic surgeon said. “We actually have to hold him back a little sometimes, but we knew that going in. . . . He’s dealt with a lot since he’s been injured, so this is kind of a cakewalk for him. Even though it still hurts, he doesn’t even mention it. He never quits.”

Hope, Kinan said, is what keeps him focused throughout his recovery, which includes physical therapy at Mass. General three times a week for the next year.

“I’m happy. Feels pretty good,” he said. “I’m confident that everything that’s been done is going to continue to go smooth.”

This was Mass. General’s first hand transplant operation since announcing the launch of the program last fall. Brigham and Women’s is the only other Boston hospital that has performed the procedure.

Kinan, almost as if trying not to jinx anything, declined to speculate on what would be the first thing he would do with a fully functional hand.

“Just get it functional,” he said, “and we’ll go from there.”

Victoria Potvin Eagan, a friend of Kinan’s, said that when she visited him at Mass. General last week, he was upbeat and smiling while in physical therapy. Potvin Eagan, vice president of The Station Fire Memorial Foundation, met Kinan through her work with the Station Family Fund. The foundation was formed months after the fire with the goal of obtaining the land where the nightclub stood to build a victims’ memorial.

“His attitude doesn’t surprise me at all,” Potvin Eagan said in an e-mail. “He is one of the strongest people that I have ever met. He faces life head-on and has overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles already. This is just one more step in his journey toward recovery.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.
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