Double arm transplant recipient: 'Every day I'm pushing myself'

Matt Saintsing
August 28, 2018 - 4:55 pm

Photo by Matt Saintsing

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When a catastrophic injury occurs, people tend to see the wounds and not the individual as the trauma is draped over one’s identity. But for John Peck, a quadruple amputee, the extensive damage to his body is just something that happened to him, not who he is. John Peck, the person, is a Marine who continues to overcome hurdle after hurdle even after a disastrous explosion left him changed forever. 

On May 24, 2010, Peck was walking through a building complex during a dismounted patrol in Sangin, a town in Afghanistan’s highly contested Helmand providence. The mortarman assigned to 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, was operating a minesweeper looking for potential dangers; his unit was hoping to connect with locals and to see if anything suspicious was stirring in the area, a standard counter-insurgency mission.  

But before they had a chance to return to the relative safety of their forward operating base, an IED made with 30 pounds of homemade explosives (HME) sent Peck flying through the compound's courtyard.

Photo by Matt Saintsing
“I was like, way to go, you’re the IED-detector and you found one, but not in a good way,” he says. Doc Gold, a Navy Corpsman (medic),  and Lance Cpl. Johnson rushed to Peck, whose right arm was immediately amputated below the elbow, while his left arm had what is known as a “gloving” incident, where the skin and flesh are pulled away from the bone. 

“And something hit me in the head,” he adds. It was his detached foot “kicking” himself. 

In a move that likely saved his life, tourniquets were quickly applied to his severely injured extremities, and Gold put an IV through the bone marrow in his leg. “It was a last-ditch effort sort of thing,” says Peck. 

He remained conscious during the entire event, but his memory of it is understandably less than complete. “This is all stuff guys have recanted to me, all I remember was screaming ‘don’t let me die,’” he says. 

Just a few days before the blast, Peck and Gold were joking, “You know what would be funny? If I got blown up again,” said Peck, which may come off as crass, but such talk is common among troops in combat. 

His first injury came in 2007 in Iraq's western Anbar province. As the M240b machine gunner in a convoy's lead vehicle when it rolled over a pressure plate IED, he sustained a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) and spent two years in therapy at a Naval Medical Center in San Diego. By the time he was ready to return to full duty, Peck decided to re-enlist. 

He deployed in April 2010 with 3/1, this time, to Afghanistan. He was in the country just a month before the devastating IED blast. 

Homecoming

Shortly after the Afghanistan explosion, Peck arrived at Bagram Airfield, a major military base just north of the Afghan capital Kabul, fully conscious but medically unstable. As doctors rushed to save his life, he switched from screaming to his friends not to let him die, to whispering to medical staff “just let me die.” 

His trip back to the United States was not without complications. The plane had to land three separate times, in the Netherlands, Greenland, and Canada, where his arterial graft failed and he began to bleed out. At one point, he flatlined in the air, something he only found out when a nurse on his flight sent him a Facebook message years later. 

Landing back in the United States began a three-month span where Peck was unconscious while his body attempted to repair itself. In that time, his condition became much more volatile. His doctors made the tough decision to amputate his left arm, due to a lack of circulation. Making matters worse, a fungus made its way into his bloodstream that "ate" away at his left bicep and was destroying his legs. It remains a mystery where the fungus came from, but Peck’s guess is it was in the sand and during the explosion it got into some of his open wounds. He eventually beat the infection after months of antibiotics and other medications but not before a team of surgeons removed portions of his left leg eventually taking it in its entirety.  

He didn't know it at the time, but he became a quadruple amputee. 

 

Photo by Sgt. Erica Knight

Waking up 

Doctors began “sedation holidays,” a process where Peck was weaned off the heavy pain drugs incrementally. His mother was there during one such occasion where she explained to him for the first time the full extent of his injuries. 

“You know what the good news is?” she asked Peck. “You finally lost those stinky feet.” 

During this time, his marriage began to crumble. “It wasn’t the injury that affected me, it was what she was saying,” says Peck. “That no woman wants to take care of a man." Those comments sent him to a dark place, he says, leading him to contemplate suicide. 

Similar to his first injury, Peck spent the next two years undergoing extensive physical and occupational therapy. He medically retired from the Marine Corps on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2012.

The Transplant

Peck's life was permanently transformed in a literal flash when his an improvised explosive device (IED) ripped through his arms and legs, but unlike other amputees, he doesn't have prosthetics. Instead, a team of surgeons attached donor arms in an astonishing 16-hour operation six years later.

By November 2015, he had read about the first-ever double leg transplant a young Spanish man had endured in Europe. He found out that such surgeries were attempted in Boston, Peck was elated. “I contacted them and blew up their email and voicemail, and finally got their administrative director on the phone and I told her my story,” says Peck. 

After a long battery of intense medical tests, which included psychological exams, skin tests, heart measurements, and other assessments, he was listed as a candidate for arm transplants; doctors told him leg transplants were not possible. “For the first three or four months, my phone did not leave my side,” he says of waiting for the phone call to receive the transplant. “It was glued to my ear." 

To add insult to such unbelievable injury, arm transplants are considered experimental, according to the Food and Drug Administration. That meant Peck couldn’t receive any financial assistance from the federal government, including the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The hospital, however, offered him a grant for the surgery, and they agreed to absorb the cost of anything the grant didn’t cover. 

But the surgery wasn’t the only cost. 

DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Nathan Gallahan

There are the costs of traveling, about $2,000 a week for a hotel stay near the hospital in Boston, another $1,700 a week in rental van fees to accommodate his 350-pound wheelchair, airfare alone is around $800, and all of that is before paying for food. 

To cover these exorbitant fees, Peck crowd-sourced the money to pay for trips between Virginia, where he was living, and Boston. “I put it out there, I put it on Facebook, and it just blew up,” he says. “Random people were sending me checks in the mail, or donating to my PayPal account.” Peck eventually got the amount he needed. 

On August 19, 2016, he got the call he was waiting for--he had a donor match. Peck rushed to Boston and was wheeled into the operating room at 10:00 am. The surgery lasted until 2:00 am the following day.  

“When I woke up, I was high as a kite and I was intubated for like, 16 hours,” he says. That first night, the anesthesia started to wear off and the pain was like nothing he felt before. "I was seconds away from telling the doctor to remove the arms.” 

But he endured the pain and was released from the hospital. That’s when he began the daunting task of learning how to live life with his new arms, ones he was not born with. Today, as a double-arm transplant recipient, he's showing just what it takes to get through some of life's most painful challenges. And, he's doing it with unbelievable courage few will ever know. 

Continuing to Improve

Over the past two years, Peck's been in intense physical and occupational therapy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. It's estimated he's been in various therapies and treatments for his injuries for a total of six years. He still goes to physical and occupational therapy at Walter Reed, which includes cooking classes, something he looks forward to. 

Peck has, of course, had to adjust to life with new arms. He used to play violin in high school, but now those days are over. Doctors warned him that he would only gain, at most, 20 to 30 percent functionality of what he once had. It's hard to know exactly how much ability he has regained, but Peck says he's trying to squeeze out each percent he can. “I can do everyday things I want to do, so I don’t care if I have to do things a little differently,” he adds. 

Life post-transplant has greatly improved, he says, and he doesn’t take the little things for granted anymore. Before the transplant, “I couldn’t clean up after myself, couldn’t take a shower, could not dress, couldn’t drive, but I was actually really good styling my hair before,” he says cracking a smile. 

Photo by Matt Saintsing

"Every day I’m pushing myself; I’m always trying to improve to get more functionality," says Peck. “That’s what anyone in my situation needs, to be driven."

Going forward, John plans on honing his motivational speaking skills and has a forthcoming book entitled Rebuilding Sergeant Peck: How I Put Body and Soul Back Together After Afghanistan. It comes out in March 2019. 

Contact us about this article or share your story at gethelp@connectingvets.com.