After losing his arms and legs to a roadside bomb, finding the courage for a risky double-transplant surgery, and now facing years of grueling rehabilitation to regain the use of two donated arms, it's fitting that 26-year-old former soldier Brendan Marrocco said his favorite character in the Harry Potter book series is the young wizard himself — "the boy who lived."
Wearing an easy smile and bandages that covered his arms from his biceps to his wrists, Mr. Marrocco spoke at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Tuesday about the significance of the operation and what new arms will mean for his independence.
"I never really accepted the fact I didn't have arms," Mr. Marrocco said. "Now I have them back, and it's like I went back four years and I'm me again."
The successful transplant was the first of its kind at the hospital and only the seventh to be performed in the United States.
Dr. W.P. Andrew Lee, director of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine's plastic surgery department, and the head of the transplant team that gave Mr. Marrocco his arms, said the young man's progress will be slow but steady. The nerves take time to heal, so Mr. Marrocco's range of motion is expanding by roughly an inch per month.
"It's a second chance to start over after I got hurt," Mr. Marrocco said. "I was feeling great before this. I'm feeling a lot better now."
Dr. Jaimie Shores, assistant professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, explained that it would take two or three years before doctors would see the full extent of Mr. Marrocco's ability to use his new arms.
"Right now, we're the ones holding him back," he said, but in the future, "I don't think there's much we're going to keep him from doing."
Mr. Marrocco's left arm was amputated to the elbow, which means he has greater control of that arm. His right arm and hand are taking longer to develop, but he was able to push his wheelchair using both arms.
The 13-hour surgery was performed at the Baltimore hospital on Dec. 18, and for the past six weeks Mr. Marrocco has been taking medicine to keep his body from fighting the foreign appendages, while also pushing himself through hours of rehabilitation.
Throughout the roughly hourlong briefing, Mr. Marrocco displayed a range of abilities he has honed since his surgery, along with a sense of humor.
Asked whether he had any plans to go to college or get a professional job, Mr. Marrocco said he had thought about it, but "I get paid to do nothing. I get paid to do what I want, when I want.
"I guess I'll just be a drain on society for the rest of my life," he said with a grin.
His surgeons quickly pointed out that Mr. Marrocco's days are filled with hours of painful rehabilitation, but the young man fired back that playing video games all day would be a good alternative.
In 2009, Mr. Marrocco lost his arms and both his legs in Iraq — at the time he was an Army infantryman — when a bomb struck the vehicle he was riding.
"When it happened, I didn't remember too much," he said. "I woke up a couple days later. I was still alive. That was really what mattered to me at the time."
He recovered as much as he could at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center before moving back home with his family in Staten Island, N.Y.
The young man was joined by his parents, Alex and Michelle, and by his 29-year-old brother, Michael, who raised his hand during the question-and-answer session to ask his younger sibling about his favorite character in the Harry Potter novels. Blushing, Mr. Marrocco named the title character — who survives a "killing curse" and is known in the popular series as "the boy who lived." He then declared that his elder brother now owed him $10.
Mrs. Marrocco said the surgery meant "moving forward" for her family.
"Our lives have been on hold the last four years," she said.
The elder Mr. Marrocco said the operation means his son is another step closer to independence.
"I think that's what we've all worked for from the very beginning, getting him to the point where he can live on his own," he said.
Mr. Marrocco agreed that surgery means more than just a milestone in medical books, it would give him back his freedom.
"I hated having no arms. It takes so much away from you," he said. "You talk with your hands, you do everything with your hands. When I didn't have them, I was kind of lost." He said he could now focus on what's ahead. That includes working to get behind the wheel of his black Dodge Charger, which has been sitting in his driveway waiting his return, completing a marathon using a hand cycle, and perhaps overseeing a movie about his life.
Asked who would play him, Mr. Marrocco chose Chris Hemsworth, the Australian actor known for playing the role of Thor.
"He's got great hair, just like me," he said with a laugh, as he gingerly used his left hand to sweep a lock of hair behind his ear.
Doctors would not comment on the donor, nor the donor's family, but Mr. Marrocco was solemn as he expressed his thanks.
"I'm humbled by their gift. It certainly changed my life," he said. "I just want to get the most out of these arms. As goals come up, I'll knock them down."
Mr. Marrocco added that he is confident he will achieve whatever he sets his mind to.
"If I truly care about something, it really means something to me, I'd go through hell to get it," he said. "That's what I'm doing now."
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