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Christmas in Iceland for France’s double arm transplant patient

Icelander Felix Gretarsson is the world’s first patient to undergo the pioneering surgery

Felix Gretarsson with his closest family and friends at a dinner with President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson Pic: Picture provided by Felix Gretarsson

The world’s first double arm transplant recipient has been able to leave France to spend time with his family in his native Iceland – the first time he has been there for Christmas in seven years.

Felix Gretarsson, 49, said it felt ‘awesome’ to be able to spend the holidays with his closest friends and family, including his two daughters and four grandchildren.

He moved to Lyon eight years ago in the hope of receiving the transplant after he lost both of his arms, at the age of 26, in an accident involving a high voltage transmission line in 1998 while working as an electrician in Iceland.

He had not been able to go back home for the last seven Christmases as he was on the donor list and the surgery could be carried out at short-notice. 

He had managed to return briefly during the summers though when surgeons are generally away from work more.

Initially, doctors tried to keep as much of his arms as possible but chronic infections led to more surgeries, leaving him with 10cm of his right arm and 5cm of his left arm.

This year, having undergone the operation in January followed by 11 months of rehabilitation, he was finally given the go-ahead:

“[The rehabilitation] is a very difficult process so it was accepted for me to come to Iceland  for three weeks and do nothing, even though it’s good to keep training. At some point there needs to be a break,” Mr Gretarsson said.

He says he has been enjoying the festivities – including a dinner with Iceland’s president Guðni Th. Jóhannesson – but he told The Connexion he does not plan to return to live there. 

He said: “The original plan was just to go to France, get the transplant and then do the rehabilitation here in Iceland but as time has progressed and I’ve started to put down roots there, we feel good in France and Lyon is a beautiful city. It’s a very good place to live.”

Surgeons think that Mr Gretarsson should reach the end result of the transplant around three years after the operation.

However, it is hard to predict what will happen as the surgery was the first of its kind – both because it was a double arm transplant and because it was a transplant of the whole arms, from the shoulders.

He never lost faith

Mr Gretarsson’s progress has already exceeded specialists’ predictions. While the French surgeons thought it would be a success if he were to move his elbows after three years, he is already moving both elbows and the fingers on his right hand. Just two days ago, he felt the first movement in his left index finger.

Experts in Iceland had not thought the transplant was possible at all: “They never believed it would be a reality so it’s even more satisfying to come back home and swing my fingers around, ” he said.

“I always had the conviction that it will happen and work better than expected. I am sure that I will be able to use these arms pretty effectively in everyday life.”
Mr Gretarsson now uses his unique experiences to work as a life coach and public speaker.

“It’s very rewarding to do. When you lose your arms and you need to put ten times the effort into everything a normal person does, you quickly learn to skip through the drama.

“We can be our own worst enemies when it comes to progressing and reaching our goals but I’ve mastered figuring out the things that matter so I create attainable strategies to help people reach certain goals,” he said.

He started public speaking ten years ago in order to raise money for the transplant but it has since become a passion of his. He is booked for all kinds of events across Iceland including medical conferences, at a power company and at meetings with security individuals.

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