‘You inspired me first’: NC woman who received historic hand transplant at Duke helps others

Positively Carolina

YOUNGSVILLE, N.C. (WNCN) — Friendships often grow from shared experiences, but few have shared the journey that led Deb Kelly and Danny Benner to the Triangle. 

In 2017, both lived in Maryland. They didn’t know each other when, within weeks, each came down with a sudden severe strep infection.  

“I felt like I had the flu,” said Benner. “I woke up two weeks later with no limbs.” 

He put all his energy into rehab, determined to stay optimistic despite his new limitations. 

“I had a lot to live for – my wife, my son was nine at the time,” he recalled.  

Kelly, who also lost her hands and legs to strep, ended up in the same facility a short time later.

“I went over and just started talking to her trying to cheer her up,” said Benner.

“I remember Danny being so positive,” remembered Kelly. 

“We talk about miracles and how much of a miracle this is,” said Benner, “We weren’t even aware but the miracle was starting that day.”

Kelly soon became close with Benner and his wife Judy. 

“Danny was my first true inspiration.  I had no idea what the future was going to bring. I had no idea really, but I would watch him,” said Kelly. “Every time I saw him accomplish something it gave me hope.” 

When Deb moved to North Carolina, they stayed in touch, sharing triumphs and difficulties few others can comprehend. 

“I can’t relate to what he’s going through. I can just see what a struggle it is, and it’s great he has you to talk to,” Judy Benner said to Kelly. 

In late 2018, the Benners learned Kelly received a bilateral hand transplant at Duke University Hospital. Benner dreamed of independence – once again sharing chores with his wife and playing ball with his son – so Kelly put him in touch with Dr. Linda Cendales who heads Duke’s hand transplant program.

About seven months after Kelly’s Thanksgiving Day transplant, doctors performed Benner’s hand transplant on Father’s Day.

“My son just got up he said, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to be able to play catch again!’ Believe me, it touched me,” said Benner.

As he learns to use his new hand Benner now looks to Kelly to see what the future may hold. He says she is his support and inspiration.

“I owe a very dear part of my heart to Deb, that’s for sure,” said Benner. 

Kelly replied, “I just love Judy and Danny. I love them.”

As both continue their recoveries, they know whatever success or setback may come there will always be a friend to share it. 


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