Healthcast: Nerve Transplant Saves Soldier


For every American man or woman killed in military service, seven are wounded. Recent advancements in battlefield emergency medicine have allowed medics to save countless lives, and new techniques used here at home are helping wounded warriors recover in ways no one could have expected, even a few years ago.

In August 2010 Marine Corporal Jeffrey Cole was exactly one month into his deployment in Afghanistan when he came under enemy attack.

“I knew that from the minute I got wounded, I couldn’t use my arm from the shoulder down,” Cole said.

The machine gun fire shredded the muscles and main nerve in his left arm and severed an artery. Medics saved his life, but told him he’d never regain use of his arm. Cpl. Cole was flown to Walter Reed Medical Center. After several surgeries, doctors prepared to amputate. That’s when reconstructive surgeon and fellow soldier, Ian Valerio, M.D., at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, offered an experimental option, a transplant of a large nerve.

“If you think of the nerve as a cable, a wire cable. If someone cuts the cable and cuts a segment of the cable, there’s no signal that can generate across the defect,” explained Dr. Valerio.

Dr. Valerio inserted a seven centimeter section of specially-prepared human tissue called an Avance nerve allograft.

“We’re basically giving a pathway or highway for nerves to grow back down to reenervate their targets to get function back,” said Dr. Valerio.

The nerves grow back about a millimeter a day. Fourteen months after surgery, Cole had a sudden breakthrough, reaching for equipment during physical therapy.

Cole said, “I’m going to see if I can grab this. So I reached out and grabbed it and that was the first time. At the initial stages getting dressed was difficult, trying to button buttons.”

Cole’s girlfriend, Jessica Moore, detailed, “He’s still working on it, and every day, hopefully, it’ll get better and better.”

Four days a week, Cole still dons a uniform and goes to a DC job that he loves.

Cole said, “I’m a park ranger on the National Mall, which is pretty amazing. I’d like to think that I still serve my country, just in a different capacity.”

Although Cole received a transplanted nerve, he does not have to take anti-rejection drugs because of the way in which the human tissue was processed before it was transplanted.

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