From the moment he entered the room at Johns Hopkins Hospital for his news conference, Brendan Marrocco was a picture of determination. He pushed his wheelchair using his arms and wrists and he smiled, showing off the new limbs.
“It feels amazing,” said Marrocco, the only U.S. soldier from the Iraq war to survive losing all four limbs in combat and the recipient of a rare double-arm transplant. “It’s something I was waiting for for a long time,” he said of the operation, a first for the hospital.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said. It’s “such a big thing for my life. Fantastic.”
Marrocco was driving an armored vehicle April 12, 2009, when he lost his arms and legs in an explosion. He and his fellow Army soldiers were returning to base after a mission near Baghdad. Only four other soldiers have survived losing all four limbs.
"I feel great. I'm doing a lot better now," Marrocco, 26, said in a video of the news conference Tuesday in Baltimore. "It gives me a lot of hope for the future."
"Six weeks ago today, a team of physicians and nurses helped restore the physical and psychological well-being of Brendan Marrocco, who lost both arms and legs serving our country nearly four years ago," Dr. W.P. Lee, who headed the surgical team, told reporters. "Only six other [double hand or arm transplant] patients have been successful and Brendan's was the most extensive and complicated."
Marrocco said he didn’t remember his reaction to the 13-hour surgery Dec. 18. "I was just happy that the surgery was over and I had arms," he said.
This was the fourth double-arm or -hand transplant Lee has done. He said he transplanted the limb donor’s bone marrow to reduce the need for anti-rejection drugs. The surgery involved connecting bones, blood vessels, muscles, tendons, nerves and skin.
Lee said it could take years before it’s known whether Marrocco’s arms will be fully usable.
“The maximum speed is an inch a month for nerve regeneration,” he said. “We’re easily looking at a couple years.”
Marrocco, of Staten Island, N.Y., was discharged from Johns Hopkins, though he’ll remain in Baltimore, where the family has set up home since their New York house was flooded during Superstorm Sandy. After more treatments, he will probably go to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., for full-time physical therapy.
New arms open up new vistas, including walking on prosthetic legs. Marrocco said he hopes to again enjoy activities like swimming and biking as well as driving.
In fact, one of his chief desires is to drive the black Dodge Charger that's been sitting in his garage for three years.
"I used to love to drive and it was a lot of fun for me," Marrocco said. "I'm really looking forward to getting back to that and just becoming an athlete again."
[For the record, 6:10 p.m., Jan. 29: An earlier version of this post said Marrocco was the first soldier from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts to survive losing all four limbs in combat. In fact, he is the only such U.S. soldier from the Iraq war, though there was at least one other such U.S. soldier wounded in Afghanistan. Also, the earlier version of this post referred to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, which has relocated to Bethesda, Md., and is now known as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.]