EFFINGHAM — Heartville native Jennifer Koechle will have a hand in groundbreaking research as the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine tackles new territory: hand transplants.
"There are lots of studies going on here, and it's all really exciting," said Koechle (nee Davis), the clinical research coordinator for the hand transplant program. "We have the potential to help a lot of people. It's a lot of cutting-edge research."
SIU School of Medicine Institute for Plastic Surgery, located in Springfield, started thinking about the hand transplant program a few years ago and began plans for it in 2012. The decision for the program came after a multi-institute collaborative fell through, and SIU decided to go ahead with a clinical trial.
The 1992 Effingham High School graduate says she has always been interested in medicine. That intrigue may have stemmed from childhood visits to the doctor.
"My ankles were always hurting, and I had to see my doctor often," she said. "Hearing him talk was always interesting."
Koechle participated in cheerleading and student council in high school. She also was an honor student and a class officer.
Koechle received her bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and went on to get her master's in public health from University of Illinois-Springfield. She began at the Institute of Plastic Surgery in 2009, and a year later she started participating in clinical research.
The program has not yet done its first hand transplant, but is in the early stages of selecting eligible candidates through a rigorous screening process. Koechle says the institute is hoping to do its first surgery this summer.
Candidates are amputees who have lost a hand from the wrist or higher.
"In addition to all the screening, we look for blood and tissue matching, and we're looking at the size of the hand, the race, ethnicity, color and hair pattern," Koechle said of the process of matching the patient and donor.