It was an exciting day for a 26-year-old veteran, the first soldier to survive after losing all four limbs in the Iraq War. On Tuesday, Brendan Marrocco wheeled himself into a packed news conference to show off his newly transplanted arms following his surgery last month at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
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Marrocco received his new arms in a 13-hour operation that involved 16 surgeons on December 18 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
"I hated not having arms," Marrocco said during the news conference. "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."
Marrocco received his two new arms from a deceased donor, becoming one of only seven people in the United States who have undergone successful double-arm transplants.
“It's given me a lot of hope for the future. I feel like I’m getting a second chance to start over after I got hurt,” Marrocco said. “I’m excited for the future.”
His transplants involved the connection of bones, blood vessels, muscles, tendons, nerves and skin on both arms, and was the most extensive and complicated limb transplant procedure so far performed in the U.S., according to a hospital statement. To reduce the threat of rejection, Marrocco's doctors also transplanted some of the donor's bone marrow.
Doctors say it will take years for Marrocco to fully recover, but as he brushed the hair from his forehead with his left arm at the news conference, it appeared that he may get there far faster than predicted.
The main limiting factor in recovery is the slow growth of nerves, said the surgical team’s leader, Dr. W.P. Andrew Lee, plastic surgery chief at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Dr. Jamie Shores agreed.
“We expect it will take two to three years to see what that final function will be,” said Shores, the hospital's clinical director of hand transplantation. "The nerves make the muscles work as well as giving sensation.”
As the strength in his new arms improves, Marrocco said he is looking forward to swimming and using a handcycle. He conceded he probably won't be playing soccer or football, two of his favorite sports.
To explain how much recovery Marrocco can expect, Lee pointed to the results from another patient who had a similar surgery three years ago.
“He was showing me how he was now able to tie shoe laces with his transplanted hands,” Lee said of the previous patient. “Also, in addition to being able to tie his shoes, he sent us a video of him using chopsticks with his transplanted hand.”
Marrocco was in high spirits as he answered questions about how he’d be spending the rest of his life.
“I’ve got the job I always wanted, doing nothing,” he said with a smile. “I guess I’ll just be a drain on society.”
In reality, Marrocco will be spending his days in physical therapy. “He’ll be doing therapy to make his hands work six hours a day,” Shores said. “There’s no amount of surgery we can do to make something work if the patients aren’t going to put an incredible amount of effort into this afterwards. He isn’t just sitting at home playing video games. It’s a full time job. That’s why we picked him. He’s demonstrated how hard he’s willing to work. He’s got that fighting spirit.”
Wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan, "Keep Calm and Chive On" (a reference to a comedy news website), Marrocco joked, “I think video games can be great therapy.”
During the news conference, Marrocco offered a message for other amputee veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, saying they should "be stubborn" and not give up hope.
"Life always gets better and you're still alive," he said. "There's a lot of people who will say you can't do something. Just do it anyway. Work your ass off. You can do it."
Marrocco's mom knows all about her son's fighting spirit.
"Brendan's always been Brendan," Michelle Marrocco of Staten Island, N.Y. said Tuesday. "He's a tough cookie, without a doubt ... He's never going to stop."
Marrocco already looks at the new arms as a part of his own body.
“I never accepted the fact that I didn't have arms,” he said. “So now that I have them it's almost like it never happened.
“I'm me again, and it's awesome.”
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