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BALTIMORE — Army Sgt. Brendan Marrocco was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for treatment more than two years ago when he first met Marine Gen. Jim Amos. The wounded warrior had become the first American serving in Iraq or Afghanistan to survive a quadruple amputation, and he was frustrated by his lack of independence.
“He looked at me and said, ‘General Amos, if I could just have one hand, my life will be changed forever,’ ” said Amos, who was then the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. “I’ll never forget that.”
Amos gave Marrocco a pep talk, but he also suggested the infantryman consider pursuing transplants for his arms and hands, Marrocco said. The soldier did just that in December, undergoing 13 hours of surgery here at Johns Hopkins Hospital on his way to becoming the first veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to receive a double arm transplant.
Amos, now the commandant, checked in on Marrocco on May 8, visiting Johns Hopkins with his wife, Bonnie, and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett. The wisecracking infantryman has exceeded expectations in his recovery, developing dexterity and range of motion a couple of months ahead of schedule, his doctors said. He was initially wounded on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009, after his truck was hit by an explosion that killed Cpl. Michael Anaya and wounded himself and one other soldier.
Marrocco said he works about four hours a day in physical therapy. He can now grip some small objects, transfer pegs from one hole to another and throw a lightweight rubber ball. He’s looking forward to hunting pheasant in the future, and agreed with his doctors that he enjoys proving them wrong about how quickly he can achieve his goals in physical therapy.
“I do,” he said with a hint of both pride and amusement. “And I’m pretty sure that on every occasion, I have.”
It will take up to three years to determine how fully Marrocco can use his new arms and hands, said Dr. Andrew Lee, who led the 16-doctor team that performed the surgery. Patients must continue physical therapy and take a combination of immunosuppressive drugs that prevent the body from rejecting the transplant, he said.
Marrocco said he still suffers some “phantom pain,” but added that it is no different from what he dealt with while equipped with prosthetic arms. He doesn’t have any sense of touch in his new hands yet but is enthusiastic about how things have progressed.
Amos asked Lee if his patients see the transplants as “black magic,” but the doctor said their concerns are fading. Once patients can move their new arms on their own, they consider them their own, Lee said. Doctors at Johns Hopkins are now researching how they can help service members who sustain blast injuries to their genitalia, which could lead to transplanted penises, he said.
Marrocco and Lee both credited Amos with nudging the soldier toward the arm transplants, but the commandant demurred.
“You did it,” he told Marrocco. “I’m just glad we got to sit down that day, is all.”
The commandant also offered a prediction.
“Next time we meet, we’re going to sit down and have lunch together,” Amos said. “And, you’re going to be eating cheeseburgers with both of your hands.”■