Retired Marine Sergeant John Peck had this to say about his new arms: “I loved them the minute I looked at them.”
After losing all four limbs as the result of an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan six years ago, Peck, 31, is recovering from a double arm transplant performed at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Peck spoke Wednesday at a news conference at Brigham and Women’s Hospital alongside the staff who helped make his new reality possible.
“My dream job since I was 12 was to be a chef and because of my donor’s gift, I actually have a fighting chance,” Peck sad. “As a result of this surgery, I’ll be able to pursue my dreams, but what means more to me than all that is that one day very soon, I’ll be able to hold [my fiancee] Jessica’s hand and actually feel it. And that is a truly precious gift.”
In August, Dr. Simon Talbot, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Brigham and Women’s and the director of the hospital’s Upper Extremity Transplant Program, led a team through a nearly 14-hour surgery to give Peck his new arms. This is the fourth bilateral arm transplant performed at Brigham and Women’s, he said.
“Having the opportunity to care for a patient who’s given so much in service to our country was especially so meaningful to the team,” Talbot said.
It was a long road to get to this point. Peck completed his evaluation to receive the transplants in August of 2014 after losing his limbs in 2010. Two months ago, Peck got the call that the transplant would finally take place.
“I was crying because I was happy, but then my mind switched and it became [about how] that means somebody died,” Peck said in a video produced by the hospital.
An empty chair sat next to Peck during the press conference Wednesday as a way to honor his donor and all those who have been lost in combat.
“My deepest condolences to my donor’s family. I’m not even going to try to know what you’re going through at this time,” Peck said, fighting back tears. “But I will tell you this: Your loved one’s death will not be for nothing. Every day that I look down at our new arms, I will drive through the pain and I will never give up. I will remember his selflessness and gift until the day I die.”
Gaining back function and sensation in his arms will be a painful journey, doctors said. Peck described the pain as “tremendous” as first. He remembered a night in the ICU when the anaesthesia began to wear off.
“I wanted to call Dr. Talbott and tell him to come re-amputate my arms,” Peck said. “It was a moment of weakness, and I’ve overcome it. Everyday it’s a learning experience and I love it.”
Peck is currently undergoing outpatient therapy at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. It will take months for him to be able to use his hands fully and to feel Jessica Paker’s hand upon his. But Talbott noted that Peck is making progress, hitting milestones and working hard through his physical and occupational therapies.
“He’s young and enthusiastic,” Dr. Talbott said. “He’s really motivated.”
Brigham and Women’s partners with the New England Organ Bank to find donors. President and CEO Alexandra Glazier noted that when doctors began exploring this type of transplantation at first, no one was sure if they would receive such a response.
“We are continually humbled and inspired by the willingness of donor families to give to others while dealing with the profound and sudden loss of a loved one,” she said.
The donor family who was able to give Peck his new arms has decided to remain anonymous. To ensure that anonymity, the hospital does not reveal the date that the transplant surgery took place.
Peck’s injury that resulted in the loss of his limbs wasn’t his first combat injury. In 2007, while serving in Iraq, Peck suffered a brain injury after his vehicle hit an IED. He suffered short- and long-term memory loss. Peck never gave up then and doesn’t plan to now.
“I plan on going to culinary school, traveling to Paris and Italy to learn their techniques, coming back and competing on The Next Food Network Star,” Peck said, “to hopefully hear Giada and Bobby Flay say, ‘John Peck, you are the next Food Network Star.”