A U.S. Navy veteran who had the world’s first penis and scrotum transplant detailed his journey in the hope other men with similar injuries will also seek help.
The man in his mid-30s identified only as Ray in an interview with MIT Technology Review was serving as a corpsman in Afghanistan when he stepped on a roadside bomb as he went to help a member of his squad.
Recalling the moment in 2010 to MIT Technology Review , Ray said: “I remember everything froze and I was upside down. I remember thinking a quick thought: ‘This isn’t good.’ And then I was on my back.”
The blast destroyed Ray’s legs, as well as his penis, scrotum, and a part of his abdominal wall. He now uses prosthetic legs to walk.
In March 2018, he received a call from his hospital aletring him they had found a potential match for a penis transplant.
“This was actually something that could fix me,” Ray said. “I could go back to being normal again. When I heard they wanted to do it, I felt this huge sigh of relief.”
Usually, those with injuries like Ray’s may be offered a phalloplasty , where tissue is taken from elsewhere in the body to create a functioning penis. It can require several surgeries for the patient to pass urine or develop sensation.
But the veteran beat the odds to find a donor, as he had to be a young, healthy, and with an average sized penis matching in colour. The donor also needed to have died two hours away from Ray so the tissue didn’t die before it could be transplanted.
Ray became the fourth person in the world to undergo a painstaking penis transplant, and the first recipient to have a scrotum. His team decided not to transplant the testes, to prevent Ray from conceiving the donor’s children without his consent.
Professor Richard J. Redett of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, who performed Ray’s transplant, told Newsweek his team spent about five years researching the complex and expensive treatment which is “life-enhancing not life-saving.” While they were highly prepared, “we felt a bit nervous but confident going into the case,” he said.
Researchers are learning more about penile transplants with each day that passes, he said, in terms of how the body heals, nerve growth, and the return of sensation and function.
Ray is recovering “very well,” with “no major surprises,” said Redett.
The corpsman’s treatment made headlines last year . At the time, the unnamed donor’s family released a statement wishing Ray well.
“We are so thankful to say that our loved one would be proud and honored to know he provided such a special gift to you,” the statement issued on behalf of the family by Alexandra Glazier, president and CEO of New England Donor Services said according to USA Today.
Ray told BBC News a month after his operation: “When I first woke up, I felt finally more normal like finally I’m okay now.”
The procedure was another first, as Ray became the only member of the military worldwide to have the operation, although it is believed to be a treatment which a growing number of veterans might hope to have.
A study published in the journal Translational Andrology and Urology in 2018 showed 1,367 surviving members of the military serving in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2013 suffered genital injuries.
As armor and medical assistance on the frontline has improved, according to MIT Technology Review , more personnel hit by ground-based explosive are maimed but live with genital-urinary injuries.
Timothy Tausch, an army lieutenant colonel and director of trauma and male reconstructive urology at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center told MIT Technology Review that when these patients wake up, they don’t ask where their legs are. “They’re asking where the testicles and the penis are,” he said. “You can’t put a number on how significantly this affects one of these wounded warriors’ lives.”
Only those closest to Ray know the true extent of what he has been through. But he said he has chosen to share his experiences anonymously to encourage those who feel emotionally capable to seek the potentially life-changing treatment if they wish.
Ray told MIT Technology Review : “It was one of those injuries that really stresses you out and you think, ‘Why would I keep going?’ I guess I always just kept this real hope that there’s an answer out there.”
He said: “In the back of your mind, you know this is a transplant, and you wonder if it’s going to be too much for you to handle. Once I went through with the surgery, all of those concerns just went away.”
After about six months, the nerves began working and sensation started to return to his new genitals. Post-surgery, Ray is able to urinate standing up and get an erection. He says he feels more outgoing, and mentally and physically healthier.
Ray said: “This surgery was a way for me to overcome that little subconscious voice or whatever it was that would always keep me feeling different from everyone else. I don’t regret it. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
This article has been updated with comment from Professor Richard J. Redett.
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