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Retired Infantryman Brendan M. Marrocco uses his transplanted arm to brush his hair back during a news conference Jan. 29 at Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore. Marrocco received a transplant of two arms from a deceased donor after losing all four limbs in a 2009 roadside bomb attack in Iraq. (Gail Burton / AP)
Retired Infantryman Brendan M. Marrocco listens during a news conference Jan. 29 at Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore. Marrocco received a transplant of two arms from a deceased donor after losing all four limbs in a 2009 roadside bomb attack in Iraq. (Gail Burton / AP)
During a press conference at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore on Tuesday, retired Army Sgt. Brendan Marrocco absentmindedly reached up and scratched his cheek.
The movement seemed second nature to the 26-year-old, but to those in attendance, it was a miracle.
"I've been using the hands to text, use my computer, scratch my face and do my hair. They have become a part of my life in the past six weeks, and that's the way we want it," said Marrocco, who last month became the first double-arm transplant recipient of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Marrocco was the first service member to survive losing all four limbs in Iraq and is one of five quadruple amputees from the recent conflicts.
On Tuesday, he was discharged from Johns Hopkins, less than two months after receiving someone else's arms during a 13-hour surgery.
"I was pretty happy with my life before … but it feels amazing. It's something I was waiting for a long time," Marrocco said.
On Easter Sunday 2009, the infantryman was behind the wheel of an armored vehicle in Baiji with the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, when the truck struck a roadside bomb. One soldier, http://www.militarytimes.com/valor/army-cpl-michael-j-anaya/4039046">Cpl. Michael Anaya, was killed. Marrocco and another were injured.
Marrocco was rushed to the combat support hospital at Camp Speicher and eventually moved through Landstuhl before landing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
It was while recovering and learning to use a prosthetic left hand that the former right-hander learned of the opportunity to receive a double-arm transplant.
"Gen. Jim Amos, the former assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, now commandant, told me a little about the program. Of course I said yes," he recalled.
A surgical team, led by Johns Hopkins' chief of plastic surgery, Dr. W.P. Andrew Lee, performed the operation Dec. 18.
It was the seventh double-hand or double-arm transplant performed in the U.S. and included specialists from a number of medical facilities, including the University of Pittsburgh, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the Curtis National Hand Center and the University of California-Los Angeles.
It was Lee's fourth double-arm transplant and his "most complicated one," he told The Associated Press.
The Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine sponsored the operation and is covering its cost as well as the rehabilitation. There have been 500 major amputations of troops' upper limbs since 2001; physicians hope that the lessons learned from Marrocco's surgery will help others.
AFIRM is sponsoring cutting-edge transplant research at several university medical centers and hospitals nationwide. In addition to hand and arm transplants, several hospitals are gearing up to perform face transplants for severely injured or burned troops.
During Marrocco's procedure, he also received a bone-marrow transplant from the donor, a new treatment physicians hope will reduce the amount of immunosuppressant medication he needs to prevent rejection of the new limbs and also will lead to breakthroughs in transplant medicine.
"The progress will be slow but the outcome rewarding," Lee said.
During the press conference, Lee profusely thanked the family that made the procedure possible by choosing to donate their deceased loved one's arms and marrow.
"Whether it's a kidney, a heart or arms, no transplant can occur without a donation. He hopes [the family] derives comfort knowing their selfless generosity has changed the outlook for one of our wounded warriors," Lee said.
Lee said Marrocco's outlook is good and he can expect to have fine motor skills if he works at it. According to the doctor, another one of his patients who received a transplant three years ago can tie his shoelaces and eat with chopsticks.
It could be years before Marrocco or surgeons know the extent of his capabilities. According to Lee, nerves regenerate at about an inch a month. Marrocco will need to endure six hours of therapy a day for several years to reach full capability.
"Video games can be a good workout. These are hands after all," he quipped.
Other top goals on his list include returning to sports ("one of my goals is to hand-cycle a marathon," he says) and driving his Dodge Charger SRT8.
Having hands, he said, will definitely improve his quality of life.
"It means we can all move forward with our lives," mother Michelle Marrocco added.
While Brendan Marrocco doesn't remember much from the days, weeks and months after the IED attack, he recalls never accepting the word "no" for answers to his questions.
His advice for anyone who has suffered grievous injuries:
"There are a lot of people who say you won't be able to do something. Just be stubborn. Work your ass off and do it," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.