In the past month, Will Lautzenheiser has started to learn what it’s like to have arms and hands again. He has gingerly lifted spoonfuls of soup to his mouth and eagerly hugged loved ones. He has been able to do this because the limbs of a stranger have become his own, transplanted during a nine-hour operation in October.
More than three years after a life-threatening infection forced doctors to amputate his arms and legs, Lautzenheiser revealed publicly Tuesday that he recently underwent a successful double arm transplant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The 40-year-old filmmaker and comedian, who graduated from Boston University and now lives in Brookline, was approved for the surgery in June and placed on a waiting list.
During a press conference, Brigham officials declined to reveal the date of Lautzenheiser’s operation to protect the identity of his donor, whose parents have requested anonymity.
While speaking to reporters, Lautzenheiser slowly lifted his left arm, which had been amputated above the elbow, and he could slightly bend the new joint. His fingers peeked out of a white brace, and the smooth skin of his new forearm was visible below bandages. The movement was tiny, but Lautzenheiser was thrilled. “I had nothing before,’’ he said. “I can move my elbow. It’s astonishing.’’
While Brigham surgeons previously had performed double arm transplants on two patients, they had never done one so high on the arm, making Lautzenheiser’s surgery more complicated. Because of the extent of the amputation, it is unclear how much function Lautzenheiser will eventually gain in his new left arm and hand.
His right arm was amputated below the elbow, and doctors are confident Lautzenheiser will end up with good movement and feeling on that side. Already, he can flex his right thumb and wrist a bit. He can’t grip silverware, but a special spoon straps to his wrist, which he can lift.
While he has little pain, Lautzenheiser said at this point, his arms mostly feel like weights rather than parts of his body. Doctors said months of rehabilitation will be needed to make the limbs his own. It will take at least a year for his new arms to gain sensation and could take as long as several years for them to function normally.
“It’s not like turning a switch,’’ said Dr. Matthew Carty, director of lower extremity transplantation at the Brigham. “His nerves will have to grow into the new limb.’’
Lautzenheiser thanked his donor’s family and tightly closed his eyes when Richard Luskin, president of the New England Organ Bank, read a brief statement from the donor’s parents. “Our son gave the best hugs. We pray that you make a wonderful recovery and that your loved ones will be able to enjoy your warm embrace,” it said.
The hospital started its face and arm transplant program in April 2009. Surgeons have completed seven face transplants and three double arm transplants, including Lautzenheiser’s.
The first arm surgery was in 2011 on Richard Mangino of Revere, who has slowly gained use of his new hands. In 2012, surgeons transplanted a face on Charla Nash of Connecticut, but a double arm transplant done at the same time later failed because of infection.
Last year, the Brigham approved a program to offer leg transplants, a rare operation. Carty said the hospital is evaluating candidates but has not found an appropriate patient yet. Lautzenheiser and his doctors said he might eventually be a candidate for the leg surgery, but that would be several years from now after his arms have begun functioning.
“It’s going to be at least one or two years before I start thinking about another major operation,’’ he said.
Lautzenheiser contracted a severe group A streptococcus infection in 2011, soon after he began teaching film production and screenwriting at Montana State University. He spent five months in a hospital intensive care unit fighting for his life, and when his heart stopped pumping blood to his arms and legs, doctors had no choice but to amputate the limbs.
He returned to Massachusetts in early 2012 to undergo rehabilitation at Boston Medical Center.
Soon after, Lautzenheiser agreed to be filmed for a short documentary directed by Robin Berghaus, a fellow BU alumnus. Berghaus saw his subject was funny and suggested he try stand-up comedy. Lautzenheiser developed a routine that poked fun at his tragedy — that would be “sit-down’’ comedy — and has performed several times at Improv Boston.
The film, called “Stumped,” has enjoyed sold-out screenings at several film festivals.
Meanwhile, a surgeon at Boston Medical Center introduced him to the Brigham’s team.
Dr. Simon Talbot, director of upper extremity transplantation at the Brigham, said Lautzenheiser’s surgery went smoothly, and his recovery so far has been typical. He had one complication when his immune system began rejecting the transplanted arms, but the episode was successfully treated with immunosuppressant drugs, said Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, director of plastic surgery transplantation.
Lautzenheiser’s surgeons donated their time. Some medical costs are covered by insurance and others by the hospital.
Talbot said Lautzenheiser was a good candidate for the surgery, in part because of his positive attitude and strong network of family and friends. Lautzenheiser’s partner, Angel Gonzalez, 38, pushed his wheelchair and later stood close by Lautzenheiser as he answered reporters’ questions.
While Lautzenheiser has been discharged from the hospital, he still spends four to five hours a day at the Brigham for blood tests to check on the level of antirejection drugs, tissue samples to look for signs of rejection, and rehabilitation.
When he was hospitalized in Salt Lake City in 2011, friends sent him articles about the Brigham transplant program and Mangino, and they suggested this would be an option.
“I said, ‘no, this would never be a possibility for me,’ ’’ Lautzenheiser said Tuesday. “ ‘This is totally farfetched.’ Now it’s happened. It’s amazing.’’
Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.