US soldier welcomes double arm transplant

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A US soldier who lost all of his limbs in a bomb attack in Iraq in 2009 said on Tuesday he feels like himself again after he received a rare double arm transplant.

Brendan Marrocco, a former infantryman who was the first serviceman to survive quadruple limb loss in the Iraq war, underwent the complex 13-hour surgery six weeks ago.

He is one of just seven people in the United States who have successfully received double arm transplants, and doctors warn he has a long way to go before he can be certain his body will not reject the transplant.

"Currently I don't really have feeling or motion in my hands yet. But we'll get there," Mr Marrocco said at a press conference, in his first public appearance since the surgery.

With both arms and hands covered by casts and braces, and wearing a khaki T-shirt, Mr Marrocco said he was determined the new hands would change his life.

"I hated not having arms," he said.

"Not having arms takes so much away from you," he added, saying losing both his legs was less frustrating. "You talk with your hands. You do so much with your hands. When you don't have that, you're kind of lost for a while." He said his new arms make him feel "almost like I went back four years," to before the roadside attack in Iraq where he was so gravely injured.

One of his doctors, Dr Jaimie Shores, the clinical director of Johns Hopkins Hospital hand transplant program, said Marrocco will spend the next two to three years doing "intense hand therapy" six hours a day, every day.

"Brendan has a full-time job now," Dr Shores said, warning that the process "will take an incredible amount of effort" as his nerves regenerate and teaches his body to use his new limbs.

But he said Marrocco was chosen for the surgery in part because the medical team believed he was up to the challenge.

"He's a young man with a tremendous amount of hope and he's stubborn.

Stubborn in a good way," Dr Shores said. "The sky's the limit with him." Dr Shores said a previous patient who had received a double arm transplant above the elbow was now, three years later, eating with chopsticks and tying his shoes.

Mr Marrocco said he hopes to get back behind the wheel - he has a black Dodge charger he's never driven waiting for him.

And the former soccer player said he hopes to get back to playing sports, though he said now he aims to take on hand-cycling.

"One of my goals is to hand cycle a marathon," Mr Marrocco said.

In addition to the complex surgery, which involved the connection of bones, blood vessels, muscles, tendons, nerves and skin on both arms, Mr Marrocco is undergoing an innovative treatment to prevent rejection of the new limbs.

This involved an infusion of the deceased donor's bone marrow cells, which has so far succeeded in both preventing rejection and reducing the need for anti-rejection drugs, which can lead to infection or organ damage.

Lead surgeon Andrew Lee, from the Johns Hopkins medical school's reconstructive surgery department, said he hopes to make the regimen standard for face and limb transplants.

Although he declined to say how much the surgery and post-op treatment cost, they said Mr Marrocco has not had to pay, since the anti-rejection protocol study is sponsored by the Department of Defense and surgeons donated their time.

This was the first time the procedure was done at Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore. The first successful double arm transplant was in 2008 in Germany.

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