Janice Lloyd, USA TODAY
(USA TODAY) - Former soldier Brendan Marrocco is speaking publicly today for the first time about his long recovery from a bomb blast in Iraq and what it feels like to have two new transplanted arms.
Marrocco, 26, of Staten Island, N.Y., was the first service member of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to survive the loss of four limbs. He has said he "doesn't regret a thing." He's already moving his new arms.
"My arms have given me a lot of hope. They feel great," Marrocco said in a briefing from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where he was the first soldier to receive a double arm transplant. "don't have any pain anymore. Currently I don't have any feeling yet, but we'll get there. I can move my wrist a little bit."
He lost both legs above the knees, his left arm below the elbow and his right arm above the elbow in Iraq when a military vehicle he was driving on Easter 2009 was struck by a roadside bomb.
Marrocco is one of only seven people in the USA who have undergone successful double arm transplants. The 13-hour surgery was performed at Johns Hopkins on Dec. 18. It will take more than a year to know how fully Marrocco will be able to use the new arms, according to W.P. Andrew Lee, plastic surgeon at Johns Hopkins.
Asked what he looks forward to, Marrocco said, "Driving. I used to really enjoy driving. It was a lot of fun for me. And I also want to hand cycle a marathon."
The surgery involved the connection of bones, blood vessels, muscles, tendons, nerves and skins on both arms. Lee told the Washington Post that new arms are never going to have 100% of the function of the limbs they replace, but patients have learned to tie shoes, use chopsticks and put their hair in ponytails.
In a second innovative procedure, Marrocco was given a new anti-rejection regimen using bone marrow from the deceased donor. That allows him to not have to rely heavily on the anti-rejection transplant medications that have side effects, can cause cancer and threaten organs. Lee developed that approach while working at the University of Pittsburgh.
His new arms "already move a little," Marrocco tweeted a month after the operation. He described himself on Facebook as "a wounded warrior, very wounded."
The military is sponsoring operations like these to help wounded troops. About 300 have lost arms or hands in the wars. While many of the soldiers who lose lower limbs are outfitted with prostheses, those devices are not as advanced for arms and hands.