Brendan Marrocco has been in public many times. During a July 4 visit last year to the Sept. 11 Memorial with other disabled soldiers, he said he had no regrets about his military service.
“I wouldn’t change it in any way. ... I feel great. I’m still the same person,” he said.
The 13-hour operation was led by Dr. W.P. Andrew Lee, plastic surgery chief at Johns Hopkins. It was the seventh double-hand or double-arm transplant done in the United States.
Lee led three of those earlier operations when he worked at the University of Pittsburgh, including the only above-elbow transplant that had been done at the time, in 2010.
Marrocco’s “was the most complicated one” so far, Lee said in an interview Monday. It will take more than a year to know how fully Marrocco will be able to use the new arms.
“The maximum speed is an inch a month for nerve regeneration,” he explained. “We’re easily looking at a couple years” until the full extent of recovery is known.
While at Pittsburgh, Lee pioneered the immune-suppression approach used for Marrocco. The surgeon led hand-transplant operations on five patients, giving them marrow from their donors in addition to the new limbs. All five recipients have done well, and four have been able to take just one anti-rejection drug instead of combination treatments most transplant patients receive.
Minimizing anti-rejection drugs is important because they have side effects and raise the risk of cancer over the long term. Those risks have limited the willingness of surgeons and patients to do more hand, arm and even face transplants.
Lee has received funding for his work from AFIRM, the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, a cooperative research network of top hospitals and universities around the country that the government formed about five years ago. With government money, he and several other plastic surgeons around the country are preparing to do more face transplants, possibly using the new immune-suppression approach.