DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE - CONGRESSIONALLY DIRECTED MEDICAL RESEARCH PROGRAMS
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Mr. Joe Kinan was not supposed to be at the Station nightclub in Warwick, Rhode Island, on the night of February 20, 2003. Normally he was working one of his three jobs, but when one of his friends had an extra ticket to a local concert at the venue, he happily agreed and rearranged his schedule to attend. Joe’s life changed forever on that night.

Within seconds of the band’s opening song, the pyrotechnics display caught fire to the insulating foam of the building’s ceiling and walls. The building erupted into flames and filled with toxic smoke while the over 400 attendees rushed to escape the overcrowded nightclub. A hundred people lost their lives, including Joe’s friend, making it the second deadliest nightclub fire in the history of New England. Another 230 people were injured, Joe the most severely. He sustained third and fourth degree burns over 40% of his body on his head, face, and arms, the areas most exposed after he fell while trying to escape. After the fire was extinguished, emergency personnel rushed in and found Joe still conscious, signaling with his arms and calling for help.

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He spent 6 months in Massachusetts General Hospital (Mass General) undergoing treatment and another 6 months in a rehabilitation facility. As a result of his injuries, he lost all fingers, both ears, and his sight in one eye and endured over 150 surgeries and procedures. Nearly 8 years after his injury, while still under the care of the team at Mass General, Joe was referred to Dr. Curtis Cetrulo, who introduced him to the possibility of receiving a hand transplant. Previously, Joe had been hesitant to adopt a myoelectric prosthetic device due to the need to remove the device to do regular tasks like showering or washing his car. However, Joe was interested in a real hand that would become a part of him and help him gain back some independence. After a year of testing and evaluations to determine his candidacy for a hand transplant, Joe was listed and the wait for a donor began in fall 2012. His doctors advised him not to travel more than 2 hours away from Boston because a donor could come at any time.

Joe Kinan Image

Just 6 weeks later, Joe returned to his future in-laws’ house to hear that he had missed several phone calls from a doctor in Boston. Joe called Dr. Cetrulo back and immediately was asked, “Where are you?” to which Joe responded with a cautious “Why?” Dr. Cetrulo informed him that he had a hand waiting for him. “I guess you need to know I’m in Seattle,” Joe replied. He had ignored his doctor’s orders to stay local in order to pull off a surprise engagement to his now wife, Carrie. With time ticking, they had to make their way back across the country. Not surprisingly, their story of, “I need to get back to Boston for my hand transplant,” was met with skepticism from the airline ticket agents.

Joe Kinan Image

Back in Boston at Mass General, a team of 20 surgeons and nurses completed the 17-hour procedure to transplant the donor hand onto Joe’s left arm. Following the transplant, Joe began intensive therapy, two sessions a day, 5 days a week for 6 months. One of the most exciting moments after the transplant was when he was able to hold the coffee pot to pour his own cup of coffee for the first time independently. He is now able to enjoy holding hands with his wife, cooking for family and friends, and playing with his youngest daughter.

There have been challenges to overcome following his transplant. Joe has suffered episodes of rejection, each requiring hospitalization. The intensive medication regimen of immunosupressants, pain medication, and steroids were overwhelming at first and left Joe feeling sick and without an appetite. It took months of careful adjustment to his medications to get his immunosuppression to manageable levels; but still, Joe’s biggest wish for the field is to find ways to reduce the medication burden on patients. In his own words, “I would love to be able to get off the medicine. Having my immune system shut down this much is nerve wracking.” Joe is also passionate about genetic screening for potential candidates, which may identify genetic conditions that could impact patient decision-making and patient care. In his own words, “I’m glad this funding exists to let me be in the position I’m in now to get some of my independence back and have a hand for holding my daughter’s.”

Last updated Tuesday, May 25, 2021