FREDERICKSBURG, Va. - After the 16-hour surgery, after the nerve blockers dented pain so torturous he nearly asked the doctors to undo all that he’d pinned his hopes on, John Peck looked down at his hands and wondered about the man they’d come from.
A tiny white scar, narrow as a hair’s breadth, ran like a dash across his right wrist. He turned them over. No calluses on the palms or fingers. The man who’d given him what a bomb blast took away had not played guitar or gardened or labored with his hands.
Peck lay in a hospital bed at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, 500 miles from his home in Spotsylvania County where the wait for a double-arm transplant had dragged on for more than two years.
In the weeks after he was approved for the surgery in 2014 and placed on a waiting list, Peck’s cellphone had become like a limb itself, never leaving his side. But weeks turned to months and soon a year had passed with no call. As a second year approached, he no longer clung to it in the same way.
Sometimes, he even wheeled himself outside without it.
But the wait had ended at last on an August day in 2016 as he lounged on his L-shaped couch in a house built for a man without limbs.
Before the tears came, before his two dogs nuzzled their noses anxiously between his armpits, Peck muttered his response to the doctor on the line who wanted to know if he was still prepared to go through with it.
“Yep,” he said in his casual, matter-of-fact way.
A LIFE-CHANGING BLAST
Six years earlier, Marine Sgt. John Peck was on foot patrol in Afghanistan the day everything stopped.
It was May 24, 2010, his second wartime deployment in two years. He was 24.
He walked inside a compound, sweeping doors for any sign of landmines and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Then he turned to walk back out.
They were the last steps he’d ever take.
The last thing he remembers before everything went dark was his fellow Marines, standing over him. He begged them not to let him die.
Peck woke up two months later in a hospital bed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. His mother and then-wife were next to him.
He learned that the blast had claimed both legs and his left arm. Later, as a virulent infection threatened to kill him, doctors took his right arm to spare his life.
He was a quadruple amputee, one of five from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it wasn’t long before a team of doctors visited Walter Reed to talk to him about an arm transplant—attaching the arms of a dying person onto what remained of his.
Although surgeons had successfully transplanted hands onto patients for a decade, the procedure they discussed with him was still new and exceedingly rare: Doctors had first performed a double arm transplant just two years before, in 2008 in Munich, Germany.
Perhaps it was too soon; Peck did not feel comfortable. As the first winter without limbs wore on, the idea, like hope, began to fade.
A NEW, CUSTOM HOME
On Veterans Day 2012, Peck accepted the keys to a house at the Estates of Chancellorsville in Spotsylvania County, about halfway between Walter Reed and a military hospital in Richmond. The custom-built home, paid for in full and designed for his singular set of needs, was a place to start over. It took some time, of course, but Peck was a born optimist—a trait instilled in him by his mother, who’d struggled to raise him alone. Over the next year, he learned how to live with a degree of independence. With a prosthetic arm, he could answer his phone and crack an egg and open a door and get in and out of his wheelchair.
He could maneuver himself outside on his deck, take out the trash, slip into his pool and feel weightless. He considered again the possibility of an arm transplant. In 2014, after meeting with doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and undergoing a string of testing, he went on the waiting list.
He bided his time trying to educate people about limb donation. His marriage long over, he looked for new love on an online dating site, making jokes about his amputations.
“I’m a blast to be around,” he wrote.
Jessica Paker, who tended bar in Alexandria, thought he was funny. He thought she was beautiful. A day after exchanging messages, they decided to meet in person.
Soon, they were a couple. She affectionately called him her penguin, because the seabirds are faithful to their partners.
SURGERY DAY ARRIVES
Paker was the first person he contacted after the call from Brigham and Women’s that August afternoon more than a year ago.
They’d been together six months. Through a text message, he asked her to call him. “The doctors say they have a match.”
She slipped outside and dialed him. For her, the surgery had always seemed so far away.
“Should we get going?” she asked him now.
Less than 24 hours later, Peck lay on an operating table, having barely caught a hastily-purchased commercial flight out of Dulles International Airport. Paker was somewhere outside, waiting for him. She would never leave.
Before everything went dark, he looked up at the faces above him, just as he had in the desert, and begged them not to let him die.
‘A ONE-TIME THING’
It took 13 hours for surgeons to give Peck what a blast had taken away in a single moment. As the anesthesia wore off, “I felt the blunt force of everything. I was seconds away from telling the team to take these arms off me,” he said.
Peck passed out from the pain. When he awoke the second time, he examined his arms and hands and thought about the man who’d given him this final gift. Later, he would learn that his name was Chris, and he’d been born with a rare brain injury that claimed his life before his 28th birthday.
He thought of Chris’ family.
“I can’t go through all this and lose the arms,” he decided. “This is a one-time thing. If they come off, it’s back to prosthetic arms.”
A month later, on Sept. 13, 2016, he was well enough to visit the New England Aquarium in Boston. He and Paker paused in front of the penguin exhibit, and he asked her to marry him. They exchanged vows less than three months later in a civil ceremony in the basement of the Boston city hall.
On Jan. 24, after battling episodes of rejection—not uncommon for recipients of organ donation—doctors at Brigham and Women’s pronounced him well enough to leave. He and Paker moved into a tiny apartment at Walter Reed, where an occupational therapist would teach him how to live with arms again.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Sometimes, Peck thinks he ought to be further along. Then, as is his nature, he takes a different perspective.
He sees how far he’s come. He thinks about how far he might go.
He has put his home in Spotsylvania up for sale and bought property in Silver Springs, Md., to be closer to Walter Reed. He plans to build “the smartest of all homes,” he said, with solar shingles and appliances controlled by voice-activation.
He has not given up on a dream he has clung to for a decade, though the worst of times: Auditioning for, and becoming, a Food Network Star. For now, he is scratching his culinary itch by creating menus for food trucks that he hopes will be operated by veterans though a nonprofit called Operation Green Zone.
“I think anything is possible,” said Annemarie Orr, the occupational therapist who works with him two hours a day, five days a week. “Will he be moving his hands the way we all do? Not necessarily. But that doesn’t mean he can’t achieve all the things we do in a similar way.”
Brushing his teeth. Scrambling eggs. Flipping sausage patties. Eating popcorn from a bowl. Sipping soup from a spoon. Slicing an apple. Using a button hook to button his shirt. Showering.
Doing a single push-up, and then three sets of 30.
Writing his wife a love note in the quivering scrawl of someone just learning.
“Jess,” he wrote, “Penguin loves you.”
For the first time in seven years, he signed his name.