“Don’t let me die here. Please don’t let me die here. I don’t want to fucking die here.”
I remember screaming that as a medic and the guys from my platoon frantically worked to put tourniquets around the shredded flesh and bone where my arms and legs were just seconds before. Through blurred vision I could see flashes of red. Blood was everywhere. And there was nothing but pain and chaos as I laid helpless in the sand.
My thoughts immediately went to the first IED I encountered three years ago. That one nearly cost me my motor skills and my memories. This one, I was sure, was going to take my life.
“Nut up and stop being a bitch!” the medic yelled at me. He was downplaying the severity of my injuries. But it was what I needed to hear.
As I started to black out, I could feel that wash of the helicopter. The CASEVAC was on its way.
* * *
The May 24, 2010 patrol in Sangin that almost ended my life had started like any other during my tour in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. I don’t remember exactly what the weather was doing … probably sunny, like always. But it was quiet that day. Really quiet. There wasn’t much activity, so we got orders to go and show support to the local village, ask if they’d seen any bad guys or needed anything.
We got to the last compound in the village, a house of interest according to the intel. It was essentially abandoned — no children, no wives, no one. We got permission from the lieutenant to go in. I went first because I volunteered to carry the metal detector. I thought maybe I’d know what I was looking for better than some of the guys who had never been on combat deployment before.
I started to sweep room to room, and as I went, the rest of the unit followed behind. They found car batteries and wires, but everything seemed fine. We checked the latrine, and the pantry, finding nothing particularly dangerous. Once the sweep was done, I went to go tell the sergeant I was heading outside. I turned, took one step, and was tossed into the air.
“You idiot,” I thought to myself.
* * *
When I woke up at Walter Reed, I was trached. I couldn’t talk. My mom was there, and she asked if I knew what had happened to me. I shook my head no, and she pulled back the sheets and blankets to reveal that all four of my limbs were gone.
I’ve never known sadness like what I felt at that moment, but that was just the beginning of my problems.
The doctors told me I had blood contamination from a flesh-eating fungus called Aspergillosis. And they didn’t know how to treat it. They threw every antibiotic they could at it but told my mom and then-wife to prepare for the worst. There was only one other person on earth known to have survived this type of infection.
At one point, things got so bad that my now-ex told the doctors to pull the plug.
Luckily, my body eventually decided to fight the infection. But it did signal the start of problems for my ex-wife and me.
Because of my injuries, I needed to stay at Walter Reed. I asked her to pack up our house in California and move to Maryland. But she’d made a home on the West Coast and didn’t want to come back. Then money began vanishing from our bank account. I’m talking about $200 dinners and things like that.
It turned out she’d met someone. We got divorced in October 2011.
I got pretty depressed after that. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, so I locked myself in my hospital room. It was dark. Except for the nurses and doctors checking up on me, I wanted no contact. I even thought up a plan to commit suicide at one point.
As silly as this probably sounds, “The Walking Dead” sort of got my head straight. One of the nurses showed it to me, and I got hooked. I know it’s fictional, but I kind of figured if a poor sucker who woke up in the middle of the zombie apocalypse could find joy again, I could too.
What really changed my mind about suicide, though, was this guy I watched outside the hospital. From my room, I could see into the parking lot and across the highway. Sometimes I would sit in front of the window and just stare at people, cars, whatever. One day, I saw this vet who had lost, I don’t know, two or three limbs maybe? I couldn’t tell for sure. I thought he was going to walk into oncoming traffic. But then this little girl comes up behind him, and I realize it’s his daughter. His wife follows, and they hug. He looked so happy. I just thought if he could be that happy, then maybe there was something better out there for me.
I got fitted for my prosthetics and did physical therapy. I got to the point where I was doing alright, but I learned pretty quickly the limitations of my new arms and legs. I could get my clothes on, and I even learned to make popcorn. Still, I couldn’t really do things like open cereal bags.
* * *
I had heard about this guy in Spain who had a double-leg transplant in 2009, so I started Googling, and what came up in the search was “Brigham and Women’s Hospital.” The fact that they were now doing limb transplants in the United States was news to me. Soon I was blowing up Brigham’s answering machine, email, everything, trying to get in contact with someone from its team.
Eventually, a woman named Lisa got back to me. I sent her pictures of my legs, and she had me come up to Boston on Jan. 4, 2014. Though I had been interested in the leg transplant, they determined I was a great candidate instead for the double arm transplant. After that, I met a ton of doctors, from psychologists to infectious disease specialists, to discuss the process of getting new arms.
They did ultrasounds, vein mapping, CAT scans, blood tests, and lastly a psychological evaluation. Because I had a traumatic brain injury from 2007, they were worried I wouldn’t be able to handle waking up with someone else’s arms or understand how hard it would be to recover. However, after a month, they called and decided I was a good candidate.
I was finally added to the transplant list on August 27, 2014, and from there it was just a waiting game.
* * *
I spent a while focusing on other things, and in February 2016, I met my fiancée, Jess.
She actually saw my profile on Match.com and it immediately made her laugh. She chose not to write me at first, but she kept thinking about it, and again she found herself laughing out loud. The next day she decided to write me, which led to a series of calls. We couldn’t stop talking so we met up for drinks on the 24th.
Then, on Aug. 18, I finally got the call: There might be arms. It wasn’t a promise, because they still had to run tests, but I was told it was likely they’d be a match.
It was weird, really, more than anything else. I was happy for a minute, and then I realized that it meant someone else had died. It made me incredibly sad. I felt guilty. But there wasn’t time to process all of that just yet. I had to start making plans to get to Boston from D.C. Though we hadn’t been together all that long, Jess made the trip, too.
The 14-hour surgery happened in mid-August. I was anxious, excited. But also knew there was a chance I might die. Jess put on a brave face but we were both scared. As they began wheeling me into surgery I started to panic. Jess, left alone in the waiting room, just broke down. The only thing that calmed me down was a nurse, who assured me everything was going to be fine. The team started to put me under, and before I knew I’d even fallen asleep, I was waking up with new arms.
* * *
It hasn’t been easy since the transplant. The pain was so excruciating after the surgery, I almost told them just to take the arms off.
For the first year, I’ll have to make the trip to Boston every three months, and after that I will have to return to Brigham every six months for the next five years. The possibility remains that my body will reject the transplant. It will be a concern for the rest of my life. I’ve had a few scares, but so far, so good.
I can’t say I’ve had much sensation yet, but I know it can take a long time. I do feel the occasional pain, especially where the nerves are starting to form. In my right arm, I have immense pain at the elbow, and in my left, it’s the full arm. Sometimes it’s excruciating, but it means I’m progressing.
There was so much before that I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do again, and if nothing else, the new arms have given me hope for what I can do with the rest of my life.
My dream, once I gain full function in my new hands, is to become a chef. I’ve been watching Robert Irvine since I was 12, and I finally got the chance to meet him. He told me he would personally train me, and I hope sometime soon that I can take him up on that offer.
Story by John Peck, as told to Sarah Sicard.