Brendan Marrocco was an Army infantryman driving an armored vehicle when a roadside bomb went off in 2009. He woke up at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, alive, but missing all four limbs. Thanks to an amazing team of surgeons, the quadruple amputee received a successful double-arm implant, a surgery he hopes will help him regain some of the function lost to the war.
“It feels amazing,” Marrocco told reporters. “It is something that I was waiting for for a long time, and now that it happened, I don’t know what to say, because it is such a big thing for my life.”
The surgery required a team of 16 volunteer surgeons, both microvascular and orthopaedic from five different hospitals to complete. The team practiced on cadavers four times before attempting the surgery. Marrocco is one of just seven people in the United States to successfully undergo an arm transplant, and the surgery was the first bilateral arm transplant done at Johns Hopkins.
“On his right side we did an above-elbow transplant by connecting the bone, muscles, blood vessels, nerves and skin between the donor and recipient,” lead surgeon Dr. W.P. Andrew Lee said. On Marrocco’s left side, “in order to preserve the elbow joint, we transplanted the entire donor forearm muscles over his remaining tissues, then rerouted the nerves to the new muscle.”
While the doctors all donated their time, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine paid for the surgery and rehabilitation. Marrocco is doing well, but he’s not out of the woods yet.
“The nerves regenerate at the maximum speed of 1 inch per month. The therapy will continue for a few years, first at Johns Hopkins, then at Walter Reed. The progress will be slow, but the outcome rewarding,” said Dr. Lee.
Rejection of the transplanted limbs is still a possibility, but in addition to anti-rejection medication, Marrocco received an infusion of the donor’s bone marrow cells to help his body accept the new limbs.
Lee is hopeful that the new anti-rejection regime they are using on Marrocco, which eliminated the need for a three-drug cocktail that can damage the liver and other organs, will become standard. The bone marrow cell infusion allows Marrocco to take just one anti-rejection drug.
“Now, I can move my left elbow,” Marrocco said. “This was my elbow, the one I had before. I can rotate a little bit. This (right) arm is pretty much not much movement at all–not yet at least. Hopefully, we are hopeful for the future to get some pretty good function out of it, out of both of them.”
“The next two to three years, Brendan’s full-time job is doing hand therapy, six hours a day, every single day, once nerves grow in,” said Dr. Jaimie Shores, clinical director of hand transplantation at Johns Hopkins. “He’s going to be working very hard.”
Marrocco is motivated to make the best out of the gift he was given.
“I just want to get the most out of these arms and just as goals come up, knock them down, and take it as absolutely far as I can. So really, I just want to get to the point that I can be completely on my own and just get back to enjoying life.”
You can follow Marrocco on Twitter, if you love his spirit see him as an inspiration!
— Brendan (@BMarr86) January 29, 2013
And his advice to others in his situation is something all of us can take to heart, “Life always get better. You’re still alive…just be stubborn. Work your ass off.”