Reporting Dr. Maria Simbra
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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Brendan Marrocco is excited to have two new arms, and he’s quickly learned to use them.
“I’ve been using the hands to text and use the computer and scratch my face and do my hair. They’ve truly become a part of my everyday life in the last two weeks,” he says.
The 26-year-old Army veteran lost his arms and legs in a roadside bombing four years ago in Iraq.
The surgery – which attached arms from a deceased donor – was extremely complicated, connecting bones, blood vessels, muscles, tendons, nerves and skin.
“It’s given me a lot of hope for the future, feeling like I’m getting a second chance to start over,” he said.
Surgeons and specialists from around the country practiced on cadavers, and last month performed the 13-hour surgery at John Hopkins Hospital, though Marrocco was screened to be a recipient at the University of Pittsburgh.
“They involve around 10 to 15 surgeons working in staggered shifts so that they maintain concentration and focus,” explains UPMC transplant surgeon Dr. Vijay Gorantla, who used to work alongside the lead transplant surgeon at Hopkins, Dr. W.P. Andrew Lee.
The medical team also gave Marrocco bone marrow from the donor, to help his body accept the new limbs — a protocol also developed here in Pittsburgh.
“He will only take one anti-rejection medication instead of the usual triple drug cocktail,” says Dr. Lee.
Dr. Lee used to head the hand transplant program at the University of Pittsburgh, but left in 2010 to head the program at Hopkins.
“Dr. Lee was a proponent of minimizing risks long term, and he continues to do that today. We are still collaborating with each other in different aspects,” says Dr. Gorantla. “I’m happy for Hopkins, and I congratulate them on this transplant.”
“The nerves regenerate one inch per month. There are many, many inches and many, many months and years for that matter before function can return,” says Dr. Lee.
And when that function returns, Marocco wants to get behind the wheel of his new sports car.
“I can’t give up because I haven’t driven it yet,” he says.
It’s waiting for him in his garage at home.
The U.S. military is sponsoring operations like Marrocco’s to help wounded veterans. About 300 have lost arms or hands in the war.
Marrocco is now healed enough to leave the hospital, but he won’t be heading home just yet. He has several months of physical therapy for hours every day.
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