Marrocco’s mother, Michelle Marrocco, said he can’t hug her yet, so he brushes his left arm against her face.
The first time he moved his left arm was a complete surprise, an involuntary motion while friends were visiting him in the hospital, he said.
“I had no idea what was going through my mind. I was with my friends, and it happened by accident,” he recalled. “One of my friends said ‘Did you do that on purpose?’ And I didn’t know I did it.”
Marrocco’s operation also involved a technical feat not tried in previous cases, Lee said in an interview after the news conference.
A small part of Marrocco’s left forearm remained just below his elbow, and doctors transplanted a whole new forearm around and on top of it, then rewired nerves to serve the old and new muscles in that arm.
“We wanted to save his joint. In the unlucky event we would lose the transplant, we still wanted him to have the elbow joint,” Lee said.
He also explained why leg transplants are not done for people missing those limbs — “it’s not very practical.” That’s because nerves regrow at best about an inch a month, so it would be many years before a transplanted leg was useful.
Even if movement returned, a patient might lack sensation on the soles of the feet, which would be unsafe if the person stepped on sharp objects and couldn’t feel the pain.
And unlike prosthetic arms and hands, which many patients find frustrating, the ones for legs are good. That makes the risks of a transplant not worth taking.
“It’s premature” until there are better ways to help nerves regrow, Lee said.
Now Marrocco, who was the first soldier to survive losing all four limbs in the Iraq War, is looking forward to getting behind the wheel of his black 2006 Dodge Charger and hand-cycling a marathon.
Asked if he could one day throw a football, Dr. Jaimie Shores said sure, but maybe not like Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
“Thanks for having faith in me,” Marrocco interjected, drawing laughter from the crowd.
His mother said Marrocco has always been “a tough cookie.”
“He’s not changed that, and he’s just taken it and made it an art form,” Michelle Marrocco said. “He’s never going to stop. He’s going to be that boy I knew was going to be a pain in my butt forever. And he’s going to show people how to live their lives.”