Lost limbs are a visible symbol of what soldiers sacrifice in war, but there are other injuries that might be far more traumatic—like losing a penis, for instance. Surgeons at Johns Hopkins University are preparing to undertake the first penis transplant in the U.S., giving a soldier injured in Afghanistan a donor organ.
The procedure has been performed twice before internationally, but only succeeded once, last year in South Africa; the man gained function of the donor penis within a few months, and soon after, doctors announced that his girlfriend was pregnant. The medical school at Johns Hopkins has given doctors there permission to perform up to 60 transplants as a trial to see if the experimental surgery should become standard.
The process requires obtaining the organ from a deceased donor (the family must give specific permission, since it’s not quite like a kidney donation) and then attaching it to the recipient’s body in a 12-hour surgery. The surgeons need to stitch several nerves and arteries together so that the patient can eventually recover feeling and sexual function, although the process will likely take several months after the surgery. The patient then must take medication for the rest of his life to prevent his body from rejecting the transplanted organ.
More than 1300 American military men suffered genital wounds during the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2013, and the Department of Veterans Affairs will pay for some of the medication costs associated with the surgery for soldiers.
Currently, the options for giving penises to men who lack them are less than stellar. Penis reconstruction involves using skin from another part of the body, and erections usually require implants that are awkward and occasionally pop out. Scientists are working on creating lab-grown penises for transplants, but the technique has not yet been tested on human recipients, and the option is unavailable to transgender men since it requires the patient’s own biologically male cells. This new penis transplant won’t be available to transgender men initially, either, but it's possible that it could eventually become an option for gender reassignment surgery.
[h/t: The New York Times]