Surgeons at Johns Hopkins will operate on 60 men with genitals injured in combat

By Julie Mazziotta
Updated December 07, 2015 05:35 PM
Owen Franken/Getty

For the first time in the United States, surgeons will perform a penis transplant on a veteran who was severely injured during combat.

Doctors at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore received permission to conduct as many as 60 transplants on veterans with genital injuries. The first surgery could happen in the next few months, on a soldier who was hurt from a bomb blast in Afghanistan, The New York Times reports.

Between 2001 and 2013, 1,367 men, most under 35 years old, underwent genital damage in Iraq and Afghanistan, often from homemade bombs.

“These genitourinary injuries are not things we hear about or read about very often,” Dr. W. P. Andrew Lee, the chairman of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Johns Hopkins tells The New York Times. “I think one would agree it is as devastating as anything that our wounded warriors suffer, for a young man to come home in his early 20s with the pelvic area completely destroyed.”

The new organs, which come from a deceased donor, start functioning within a few months, allowing the new owner to urinate, feel sensation and have sex.

The one previous successful transplant occurred in South Africa in December 2014, and six months later the man was able to conceive a child with his girlfriend.

The only other attempted transplant was in China in 2006, but the man psychologically rejected the donor penis, and asked to have it removed, according to the Johns Hopkins doctors. They recognize that the same scenario is very possible with their 60 veterans, and said they will monitor the patients before opening up the surgery to others.

However, they say that the psychological damage from losing the penis is already emotionally shattering.

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“To be missing the penis and parts of the scrotum is devastating,” Dr. Richard J. Redett, director of pediatric plastic and reconstructive surgery at Johns Hopkins, said. “That part of the body is so strongly associated with your sense of self and identity as a male.”

If the operations are successful, it could open up new options for transgender patients.

“Once this becomes public and there’s some sense that this is successful and a good therapy, there will be all sorts of questions about whether you will do it for gender reassignment,” Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins said.

But he questions who would come first in line for a donated penis.

“What do you say to the donor? A 23-year-old wounded in the line of duty has a very different sound than somebody who is seeking gender reassignment,” Kahn said.