Sometimes the most amazing things involve actions people generally take for granted. For Millville resident Jessica Arrigo, that means little things such as using a curling iron, starting her car with one hand or holding a cup of coffee.

"That was a big wow moment," she said of her coffee experience.

A few months before that "wow moment," Arrigo underwent a 13-hour operation to become what doctors said was the first New Jersey woman to undergo a hand transplant. Therapists say they can't believe how far the 28-year-old Arrigo has progressed since the surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center on Sept. 11.

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Arrigo's therapy went from a few minutes a day to an hour to two hours to her current routine of spending six hours a day, five days a week, at South Jersey Healthcare Sports RehabCare in Vineland.

The therapy is painstaking, and involves Arrigo putting small pegs in small holes, turning small screws and putting together puzzles - her current project is a 764-piece, 3D puzzle of the U.S. Capitol - to develop her fine motor skills. She's squeezing handfuls of putty and using light weights to develop muscles, big and small, in her hand and fingers.

Another current therapy project has special meaning: Arrigo is making a blanket - by slowly knotting pieces of fabric together with fingers still developing strength and flexibility - for her 17-month-old daughter, Cody.

Arrigo's occupational therapist, Victoria Rink, said the therapy can also be painful, especially when Arrigo stretches her hand.

But there's one bit of therapy Arrigo loves: Playing on the Wii, a video console that Rink said is actually good for working Arrigo's hand and wrist.

In fact, Arrigo has played so much Wii that she proudly proclaims she is "awesome at tennis and will take on anybody." That included another rehabilitating patient who challenged her to a game. He even showed up for the contest with his personal Wii controller.

"She whipped his butt," Rink said.

"Are you going to put that in (this story)?" Arrigo asked. "I want him to read it."

Rink says Arrigo - a normally shy woman who has shown strong determination during her rehabilitation - deserves to brag a little.

"I was very surprised at how much she could do when she first started," Rink said. "Then she kept saying to me, ‘make this harder, make this harder.'

"Jessica is very humble. She doesn't see herself as an inspiration to others. Patients talk to me and say they are so inspired by how hard she works, it inspires them to work harder."

Arrigo's story began in West Virginia, where she lived before moving to Millville. In 2004, she contracted a norovirus, which caused her to go into septic shock. Doctors put the dying woman into a medically induced coma to buy them time to make a diagnosis.

But Arrigo's blood circulation failed, causing her arms and legs to wither. Doctors had to amputate her hands and both legs below the knees.

Arrigo had to miss an opportunity for a hand transplant because of her daughter's birth in 2009. Another chance finally arrived in September. Arrigo got an early morning phone call from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Doctors had found a donor. All Arrigo knows is that the hand she now has on her right arm used to belong to a 38-year-old woman from Erie, Pa.

Arrigo said she doesn't know how much the operation cost.

But there are still expenses: Arrigo makes occasional trips to Pittsburgh to meet with doctors. Her fiancé or her father travels with her. Rising gas prices and the cost of lodging are taking a fiscal toll.

Some friends are helping out.

The Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie 2127 is holding a beef and beer event and auction at its headquarters at 100 Cohansey St. in Bridgeton at 5 p.m. on Saturday. Tickets cost $25.

Since the operation in Pittsburgh, Arrigo said she's had a few setbacks.

She said she's had some encounters with her body rejecting the hand, but they were handled through medication. She also said she needed a blood transfusion and suffered a little kidney trouble.

But overall, Arrigo said, her recuperation and recovery is going smoothly.

"I didn't think that they were going to progress as quickly as they are," Arrigo said. "I thought it would be a lot more difficult than it is."

Arrigo said while she understands the hand replacement surgery is unique, she admits to being a little embarrassed when people compliment her success.

There is still a lot of therapy left.

Rink said Arrigo will need about another six months of help. The therapy will change to meet the changing needs of Arrigo's hands and fingers, she said.

One thing Arrigo looks forward to is going back to Cumberland County College and continuing her work toward becoming a social worker. She said she wants to work at a Veterans Administration hospital.

Arrigo said part of her recuperation is for doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to monitor her progress, something that will help them develop new and improved techniques for future hand replacement surgeries.

"A lot of this is going to make it better for other people," Arrigo said. "I'm so glad about that."

Contact Thomas Barlas:

609-226-9197

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