Retired Marine Awaits Double Arm Transplant

The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, seen from the air, with Wisconsin Avenue in front, shows the original tower that Franklin Delano Roosevelt designed. (U.S. Army photo)
The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, seen from the air, with Wisconsin Avenue in front, shows the original tower that Franklin Delano Roosevelt designed. (U.S. Army photo)

In the evenings, in the echoes of the expansive home built and equipped for him, retired Marine Sgt. John Peck imagines a new life.

He wills the phone to ring. Perhaps this is it, he thinks when it finally does. The call from the Boston hospital that will set it all into motion.

Peck was clearing the way for his fellow Marines while on patrol in Afghanistan in May 2010 when he stepped on an improvised explosive device. The blast claimed both of his legs and part of his right arm. Later, as he fought a virulent infection, doctors took his left arm to spare his life.

Peck, a hulking, 6-foot-tall, 200-pound Marine, had become a quadruple amputee at age 24.

It was like somebody hit the pause button on his life. Now he waits for a double arm transplant from Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital in the hope that it will start again.

From the sun deck of his home at the Estates of Chancellorsville where he has learned to live in relative independence, he lists in order all he intends to accomplish when that day finally comes.

They are big dreams, he concedes, with an unlikely chance of total success.

He shrugs.

"I've had worse odds."

A Life-Changing Meeting

For more than two months after the blast, Peck lay in a medically induced coma at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He'd endured more than two dozen surgeries; three times, his heart had stopped. An infection had nearly killed him.

But by late 2010, he was well enough to meet with a team of visiting doctors from another hospital who discussed with him the possibility of a double arm transplant.

Surgeons had successfully transplanted hands onto patients for a decade. But the first double arm transplant had occurred just two years earlier, in a hospital in Munich, Germany, where a team of 40 people attached two donor arms onto a 54-year-old farmer who'd lost his in an accident.

Peck wasn't comfortable with the doctors he met with that winter. He gave up on the idea.

Three years would pass before he heard a story about the world's first successful double leg transplant--performed on a patient in Spain. By then, Peck, an Illinois native, had settled in Spotsylvania County for its proximity to Walter Reed and the Veterans Affairs hospital in Richmond. The house, designed and built with his unique needs in mind, was fully funded by veterans organizations.

He researched the case in Spain in the faint hope that perhaps he, too, could be a recipient. His search took him to the website of a medical facility he'd never heard of before. Brigham and Women's Hospital was looking for candidates in the U.S. for the same procedure.

From that moment, he said, he was dogged, making calls and sending emails to the surgical team's personal assistant. He sent photographs and links to news articles and begged someone to get back to him.

They did. In January 2015, he traveled to the hospital and met with a large team of doctors.

Because nothing remained of Peck's left leg--which requires him to sit painfully on his pelvis--he was not a candidate.

But they wanted to give him arms.

'Someone Else's Arms'

Before he could go on the waiting list, Peck would have to undergo a battery of tests: CAT scans, ultrasounds and blood tests. Vein mapping, an electrocardiogram and a psychological exam.

"They wanted to make sure I understood someone else's arms are going to be attached to me and be OK with it," he said.

Even if a matching donor was found, and the surgery was a success, the road ahead would be grueling. He'd have to learn again the basic tasks he'd spent the last six years honing with the help of a prosthetic arm: How to pick up a phone and crack an egg and open a door and get in and out of a wheelchair.

Recovery could take six months. When Peck finally went home, there would be quarterly visits, then biannual visits, to Boston for years. And even in the best cases, doctors explained to him, there would be limitations. He might hold a baseball and an orange in his new hands and not know the difference without looking.

"You're not understanding," Peck told them, how little any of that mattered compared to all he'd been through. Compared to the chance to realize the now-buried dreams of his childhood.

A Dynamic Duo

He is optimistic, unwilling to consider for long any other scenario other than one in which a donor is found and the surgery is a success.

"I raised him that way," says his mother, Lisa Peck, who also serves as Peck's primary caregiver.

She was a single mother who often struggled to provide for her son. Christmases were especially difficult. But they lived by the mantra that they could get through anything together. That they would look for answers rather than dwelling on the problem.

Not that what happened to Peck hasn't tested them. Not that it's somehow easy to live without your arms or legs.

It is an isolating condition. In the evenings, after his mother leaves, the house can grow unsettlingly quiet. His handful of local friends have families to tend to. When he does get out, Peck says, he is often the subject of cruel comments whispered loudly enough for him to hear.

But someday--maybe sooner rather than later--he'll have arms again. He'll be able to throw a baseball and work on a car and go the gym.

He'll go to culinary school and audition for television's "Food Network Star" and maybe even get on the show and win it. He'll open his own restaurant.

And it'll all start with a call.

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