military

Doctors: Double-arm transplant vet 'very determined'

Jan. 30, 2013 at 1:21 PM ET

Brendan Marrocco’s fighting spirit helped him survive the loss of all four limbs from a bomb blast in Iraq.

It also helped him get selected as the recipient of a double arm transplant last month.

Although the Iraqi war veteran has several years of daily therapy ahead of him, his upbeat attitude and determination will be critical to his full recovery, said Dr. W.P. Andrew Lee, the plastic surgeon who led the surgeries.

"He is a very determined person who has endured a lot and absolutely deserving because he has sacrificed so much for his country," Lee said Wednesday on TODAY. “Mostly it’s his motivation for hard work and his optimism that made him such an ideal candidate for our operation."

A 16-member surgical team performed the dual transplant on Dec. 18 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

“It was a procedure that all of us rehearsed multiple times to try to take as much of the unknown and unexpected out of it,” said Jaimie Shores, the hospital's clinical director of hand transplantation.

Shores said the team got together numerous times to map out the procedures, which involve connecting bones, blood vessels, muscles, tendons, nerves and skin on both arms.

“We practice it over and over and when the real event shows up, everything went just like we’d rehearsed it and so we were very happy with the results,” he said.

The dual surgeries were the most extensive and complicated limb transplants ever performed in the country, according to a hospital statement. To reduce the threat of rejection, Marrocco's doctors also transplanted some of his donor's bone marrow.

Lee said it will take two to three years for Marrocco to fully heal, although the former soldier was already showing remarkable signs of recovery at a hospital news conference Tuesday when he scratched his nose and brushed hair away from his forehead.

“We expect that he will first regain elbow motion in his transplanted right arm, and then wrist and eventually fingers. Feelings will also gradually come back, which is an important part of the arm function,” Lee said.

But all signs point to Marrocco being on the right track.

“Brendan has done extremely well since the surgery. We're very happy with his progress,” Lee said.

Marrocco, 26, was the first soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan to survive the loss of four limbs.

During his news conference Tuesday, he said having arms has provided him with new hope.

"I hated not having arms," he said. "I was all right with not having legs. Not having arms takes so much away from you. Even your personality. You talk with your hands. You do everything with your hands, basically. And when you don’t have that you’re kind of lost for a while."

As the strength in his new arms improves, Marrocco said he is looking forward to swimming and using a handcycle.

"You know, I never really accepted the fact that I didn't have arms," he said at the press conference. "So now that I have them again it's almost like it never happened."

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