Joan Woodle (Col ’94) recalls her first pregnancy in 2012 as perfectly normal. It wasn’t until doctors delivered Connor that her husband, Jason, noticed something was wrong.
“My husband said, ‘Our son doesn’t have thumbs,’” she says.
The couple struggled with what this would mean for their only child. Would Connor be able to fish? Play baseball? Have a normal life?
The answers they sought were less than two miles from their home.
Two weeks after Connor was born, Joan and Jason met with Dr. Bobby Chhabra (Med ’95, Res ’01), co-creator of the University of Virginia Hand Center. Chhabra, who treats congenital hand differences like Connor’s, told the couple that their son’s condition was known as thumb aplasia, a congenital defect. Chhabra gave them two options: Connor could learn to adapt to life without the use of thumbs, or he could undergo a rare operation on each hand that would create thumbs from his index fingers—an extremely complex procedure called digit pollicization.
While the Hand Center sees about 12,000 patients annually, Chhabra says he performs just one or two of these delicate and life-changing operations each year.
“In my view, pollicization is one of the most gratifying operations you can ever do,” says Chhabra, who chairs UVA’s Department of Orthopedic Surgery. “In fact, it’s one of the main reasons I went into hand surgery. It can improve a child’s quality of life dramatically.”
The surgery, if successful, would allow Connor to have the grip necessary for many everyday functions, such as holding a pencil or tying a shoelace.
But the procedure had its risks. Each of Connor’s index fingers, along with their blood vessels, muscles and nerves, would have to be severed, rotated to the position of the thumb and then reattached. The surgery lasts as long as six hours, and each hand would have to be worked on separately, months apart.
“It’s an incredibly elegant operation,” Chhabra told the Today show. “This is one of the more complex operations that I do, because a child’s hand is very small. The structures, blood vessels, nerves—everything—is minuscule.”
The operations also had to be done before Connor turned two, to allow the brain to adapt to the new position of the finger.
The Woodles didn’t hesitate. While Connor had learned to use his hands in a scissorlike motion to pick things up, having thumbs would allow him to manage life more easily. Not long after his first birthday, Connor had the first of the two surgeries. Six months later, he had the other.
So far, the family has been thrilled with the results.
“We didn’t have to travel across the country to find another expert; we had one right here in our backyard,” Joan Woodle says. “We had someone we knew was invested in our child and his outcome. Now he’s got two new thumbs. He’s a master of the crayon.”