How an emerging form of organ donation could change the lives of veterans injured in the line of duty.
Image via (cc) Flickr user Army Medicine
This year, for the first time in the United States, doctors will attempt a dramatic and complex operation on a grievously injured military veteran: a full penis transplant. If successful, the surgery will be the first of many provided to soldiers wounded in the line of duty for whom a return to normal genital function was once thought to be a lost cause.
According to The New York Times, a surgical team from Johns Hopkins University will attempt the penis transplant at some point in the coming year on an anonymous candidate, using an organ provided by a deceased donor. During the surgery, expected to last around 12 hours, they’ll connect blood vessels, nerves, and intact urethra. If successful, the procedure will allow injured veterans to regain some penis functionality—including sexual activity.
“Some [patients] hope to father children. I think that is a realistic goal,” said Johns Hopkins chairman of plastic and reconstructive surgery, Dr. W. P. Andrew Lee, to the Times.
Penis transplantation is an exceedingly rare operation—this will be the third time an attempt has been recorded in medical journals—and one with a decidedly mixed track record. In early 2015, a 21-year-old South African man became the world’s first successful transplant patient, regaining significant use of his donated penis. However, a Chinese attempt at transplantation in 2006 ended in failure, with “severe psychological” problems caused by the newly attached organ.
The Daily Mail, citing the U.S. Department of Defense, points out that more 1,300 soldiers—mostly under the age of 35—suffered wounds to their genitals between 2001 and 2013. The team at Johns Hopkins has been given permission to conduct 60 re-attachment operations in order to evaluate the surgery’s effectiveness and determine whether it should be offered as a form of standard treatment, reports the Times. If the operations prove to be successful, it’s possible that they will be added to the regular roster of combat injury surgical options. For now, Johns Hopkins will cover the cost of this first experimental operation, with the DOD and Department of Veterans Affairs potentially contributing funds for future surgeries.
Beyond the physical effects of the surgery are the profound psychological implications as well. Veterans Affairs polytrauma social work supervisor Scott Skiles explained to the Times that “our young male patients would rather lose both legs and an arm than have a urogenital injury.”
To that end, full penis transplants are more than simply a means to restore some of the body’s core functionality—they’re a way for those who have served their country, and been scarred both physically and mentally in the process, to begin to feel normal once again.