By , Assistant Editor | Greene County Daily World
It's been something he's waited 13 years to see since a 1998 factory accident in Elwood, Ind., left him disabled.
His left hand was lost except for his thumb, and he has the use of only three fingers in his right hand after a metal splitter machine mishap.
On Wednesday the 36-year-old Greene County man conducted his first media interviews since his July 10 left hand transplant surgery at Jewish Hospital's Hand Care Center in Louisville, Ky.
He is the eighth hand transplant patient, and the surgery consisted of a team of 16 Jewish Hospital doctors. His surgery took 14 1/2 hours.
When the bandages were removed a day or so after surgery and Rickelman finally got to see his new hand, the emotion was hard to describe.
"It's pretty overwhelming. I had not had a left hand for 13 years and then I do have a hand. I was very excited, happy and overwhelmed," Rickelman stated. "I'm just really happy to have two hands again. It's going to be nice just to do everyday things just like everybody else does them."
Speaking by telephone, Rickelman and his wife, Kelli, were upbeat and positive about the road to recovery.
Kelli Rickelman echoed her husband's thoughts on finally seeing his new hand unwrapped for the first time.
"It was very, very overwhelming in a good way. Just to finally see it after working so hard to try and get to this point after being on the donor recipient list for more than a year. That was the hardest part of this whole thing really, the wait," she said.
Rickelman's days are now focused on daily therapy sessions at the hospital and hourly individual workouts.
He was released from the hospital on Monday, but he'll be required to stay in a hotel in the Louisville area for the next three months.
"It's going great. There are no problems. Everything is going well. Everything has been positive, there is no inflammation and I feel great," Donnie replied when asked how his recovery is going. "I'm actually out of the hospital now. The routine for my day is pretty full. You have lab work to be done. There is lots of therapy, four hours of therapy every day with a therapist and then there is therapy on my own."
The therapy is tough, but necessary.
"Every hour of the day I'm doing therapy, getting everything moving again in the hand, building the strength and the function of the hand," he said.
Infection and rejection of his new transplant hand are the biggest concerns for the medical team because the surgery has left him immune suppressed, Donnie explained.
He's likely be on anti-rejection medication for the rest of his life.
Rickelman, who moved to Linton with his family in 2000, said he's looking forward to doing some ordinary things and even going back to work some day.
Among the ordinary things he's anticipating as his therapy progresses are handling a video game controller and playing sports with his 19-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, and 16-year-old son, Collton.
The decision to do the transplant surgery was not an easy one, but one that his family supported.
"It's a pretty big decision and it's not for everyone, but it basically came down for me that I wanted two hands and a better quality of life."
He had no assurances that the procedure would work, but it was worth the risk in his view.
"I wanted two hands. They (the medical team) were able to give me two hands and I'm going to make it work," Rickelman told the Greene County Daily World.
Calling herself Donnie's biggest cheerleader, Kelli added that she had no concerns entering the surgery.
"Any of the concerns I had were when he initially started looking into it, but when you get educated all of the concerns go away."
Donnie's been unemployed and on disability since the accident. However, the Linton man expressed optimism that with the transplant he might be able to find a job that can fit him.
"If I get the hand working good and the right opportunity comes up, I'd be happy to go back to work," he said.
Support and prayers from family and friends have been encouraging and Donnie's happy that he had the chance to get a new limb.
"They all have been very supportive and thrilled that this has finally happened. They are glad to see I have two hands again, which is just remarkable. When someone loses a limb they never think they are going to get it back so this is truly remarkable."
He continued, "It's a tough thing to lose a limb and some people are able to adapt to it better than others. I adapted fairly well, but there was always a little void that I wanted to have two hands again."
Rickelman, who is an organ donor himself, said he is very gracious to the hand donor family.
He doesn't know the identify of the donor or the family, but said his new opportunity at a better quality of life would not be possible without them.
"This is all because of the Kentucky donor affiliates and the Indiana donors and donor families. This is a huge sacrifice for the donor families."
Indiana Organ Procurement Organization, in coordination with the Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates, arranged the hand donation for the team's transplant procedure.
The hand transplant was sponsored by the Department of Defense, Office of Naval Research and Office of Army Research to further research in the composite tissue allotransplantation program.
"It's all about the donor families and the organizations that go out and seek the organ donations to make all this possible," Kelli added.