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Doctors replace Irishman James Byrne's thumb with his toe

James Byrne
Image caption James Byrne is only one of a few patients in the past five years to have had a toe re-attached as a digit.

An Irishman who accidentally cut off his thumb has had his big toe surgically transplanted on to his hand in its place.

James Byrne, 29, severed the digit on his left hand last December while sawing through a piece of wood.

The thumb was so badly damaged in the accident that plastic surgeons could not reattach it.

Mr Byrne, who is originally from County Carlow, said after the accident he feared he would not be able to continue his work as a paver.

"We tried everything, including leeches, to get the blood flowing again, but it didn't take," he said.

"I couldn't lift anything with my left hand. You can't lay one-handed, you might as well go home."

Surgeons at the Frenchay Hospital in Bristol, near where Mr Byrne now lives, agreed that the next best option was to take the toe from the patient's left foot and attach it to his hand.

'Cartoon thumb'

The father-of-one admitted he was sceptical when surgeon Umraz Khan first suggested amputating his big toe.

"Mr Khan said to me 'you will have a thumb even if I have to take your toe'. I thought he was joking, but he was serious and nine months later here it is."

Less than a week after the eight-hour operation Mr Byrne is already able to move his new digit.

"It looks like a cartoon thumb that has been hit by a mallet," he told the Irish Independent.

"The aesthetics of it don't bother me, I am just happy that it works. My work as a paver would have been destroyed without the use of my hand.

"I couldn't pick up a brick without a thumb but now I hope I can be back at work in a few months.

"I never thought it would work but the surgical teams and the nurses have done such a fantastic job and the care has been amazing."

Image caption Mr Byrne said his new thumb is like something from a cartoon

Mr Byrne will now have physiotherapy to help him to adapt to using his new thumb.

Frenchay Hospital is a regional micro-surgery centre and has an international reputation for complex surgery.

Mr Khan led two teams of surgeons and anaesthetists - one working on Mr Byrne's toe while the other worked on his hand.

He said: "It is quite a rare thing to do and is a very complex micro-surgical procedure, which involves re-attaching the bone, nerves, arteries, tendons, ligaments and skin of the toe to the hand.

"James will have to learn to re-balance, without his left great toe, on to the ball of the foot but he will be able to walk and jog normally.

"It is still early days for him and he might need additional surgery to make it look more like a thumb."

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