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Conceptions of "Success": The Ethics and Rhetoric of Hand Transplantation

Herrington, Emily R. (2019) Conceptions of "Success": The Ethics and Rhetoric of Hand Transplantation. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Twenty years since the first modern attempts at human hand transplantation (HTX) in 1998 and 1999, these operations are a fringe hybrid of the clinical specialties of reconstructive microsurgery and transplant immunology, offered only under experimental protocols in most cases. Despite having paved the way for face transplants, womb transplants, and penis transplants, fewer than 100 hand transplants have been performed so far, complicating clinical research efforts to parse results “objectively.” Through ethnographic oral history fieldwork and close rhetorical analysis of the medical literature on hand transplantation, my dissertation argues that despite its ubiquity across hand transplant rhetorics, “success” is a misnomer and a distracting frame for discussions of effectiveness in the science and ethics of this field since the reality of lived experience for patients involves lifelong unfolding tradeoffs of medications management, care activities, surveillance, managed complications, and relational upkeep which are never fully resolved.

By placing the question of “success” in the frame of HTX patients’ self-reported experiences of dis/ability and the ongoing construction of their identity—rather than in medicalized notions of function or ability and progress-oriented histories of transplant science internationally—I show that parsing cause and effect in a many-faceted procedure like hand transplantation is a nuanced task that betrays the inherent subjectivity of data interpretation in medical science. Following in the stream of discourse on narrative medicine, person-centered healthcare, and the social construction of disability, my dissertation challenges norms for doctors representing vulnerable others to their colleagues and the public. Along with empirical insights from the oral histories, my analysis of hand transplant literature contributes to knowledge in disability studies, rhetoric of science, feminist bioethics, and science and technology studies (STS) bringing novel substance to 21st century debates about the options that should or should not be made available to those navigating the personal and putative binaries of ability/disability, beauty/deformity, and health/illness.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Herrington, Emily R.ecr18@pitt.eduecr180000-0002-2611-4116
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairKuchinskaya,
Committee MemberParker, Lisa
Committee MemberZboray,
Committee MemberMitchell, Gordon
Date: 21 June 2019
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 10 April 2019
Approval Date: 21 June 2019
Submission Date: 16 June 2019
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 155
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Communication: Rhetoric and Communication
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: Oral history of health and medicine; Medical humanities; Disability studies; Medical anthropology; Science and technology studies (STS); Feminist bioethics; Rhetoric of science; Communication studies; Philosophy of Health and Medicine
Related URLs:
Date Deposited: 21 Jun 2019 16:37
Last Modified: 21 Jun 2019 16:37


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