After the amputation of a limb, the brain also reorganizes itself. But how does it react when the body part is available again years or even decades later?
In February 1964, surgeon Roberto Gilbert Elizalde found the ideal candidate for a radical project. Inspired by the successful kidney transplant in the United States, he and his team in Guayaquil, Ecuador, had devised a procedure for transplanting limbs. They wanted to test this on Julio Luna, a 28-year-old seaman who had lost his right hand in a shell explosion.
The team around Gilbert Elizalde operated on the man for nine hours. The surgeons prepared Luna's arm stump so that they could skillfully connect its bones, tendons, blood vessels, muscles and skin to those of the donor forearm. With the help of new microsurgical techniques, the doctors sewed the delicate nerve cords together. They hoped these fascicles would direct the sensory and motor nerves from Luna's injured forearm to grow into the hand over the coming months.
At the end of the operation, the team watched tensely as the surgical staples were released. Luna's blood flowed into the pale donor hand and brought it back to life…