Arms and the Man: Jeff Swedarsky has overcome the loss of a limb and hopes to help others

Sept 9 2015  CITY PAPER

Jeff Swedarsky is still getting used to living with Rocky, the name he has given to his new arm.

Swedarsky was a musician—he played piano, trumpet, drums, and some guitar—until 2013, when he and his wife, who was three months pregnant at the time, attended Washington, D.C.’s Jazz in the Park with his best friend and his fiancee. The friends were looking for a wedding venue and Swedarsky, who worked in the food and event business, thought they should stop by the Hotel Monaco.

The group climbed a uniquely preserved staircase, admiring the architecture as they wound around each bend. Swedarsky leaned back against the railing and fell backward over it.

“Somehow I fell nearly 40 feet to what would have been a normal person’s death on a freak whim. I should have died,” Swedarsky says. “I felt myself being guided down comfortably for what seemed to have been a long time.” He says he didn’t realize at the time of the fall how close to death he was. “Whether or not it was fate, luck, or something in between, I managed to save myself in perhaps the only way that, after everything, will enable me to be myself again.”

On the way down, Swedarsky grabbed on to something. This action saved his life, allowing him to land on his feet without a single broken bone, but it took his arm, which was lying on the staircase above where he landed.

“It slowed me down enough,” Swedarsky says. “It turned me straight up. And it tore my arm off. Just like this crazy, vicious, disgusting tear.” His friend ran down after him, ripped off his belt,* and used it as a tourniquet.

“I woke up a few minutes later,” he says. Someone grabbed his arm and put it in the cooler they had brought to the concert. “I kept saying, ‘get my arm! I play music! Get my arm back!'” he says. He kept checking in to make sure someone had his arm on their way to the hospital.

After spending a grueling night in surgery, Swedarsky awoke to find his arm reattached to his body. “I lost just a boat load of blood,” he says. “I died a few times on the table, but I made it out, they put the arm on, and they felt a pulse.” He stayed in intensive care for a few days.

“Those were the worst days of my life,” Swedarsky says. “My hospital doctors were good trauma docs. In the heart of D.C., they deal with tough problems with conditions that are not ideal. They were good at saving lives, not limbs.”

Over the course of four more surgeries, he lost most of his arm. “I remember when it died. It was horrible. I knew it was gone,” he says.

Swedarsky could smell the horrific smell of decomposition. He was on heavy pain medications and hallucinating, so it was difficult at times to tell what was reality. “My family was scared. They didn’t know what to do,” he says.

Two months after the accident, Swedarsky’s wife remembered that an employee of theirs had a serious hand injury and was successfully treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Then Swedarsky came across a study by Dr. Jaimie Shores. “This study, funded by the department of defense, appeared to be a potential solution for me: an arm transplant.”

Swedarsky was determined to be accepted into the elite program. “Becoming a candidate for this program is tough,” he says. “It is very, very tough.” He underwent hundreds of psychological and physical tests before he was accepted. His motivation was also a key factor in securing his spot. “It was about how badly I wanted it,” he says. “I was perfectly healthy, except I was missing an arm. There was that and my persistence. I was really hard-core with them. If I didn’t hear from them for a week, I’d be like, ‘All right guys, so what’s the next step? What do I have to do?'”

Once accepted into the program, Swedarsky waited for an arm. The wait gave him time to get used to the idea of having someone else’s arm where his used to be. Attaching the arm would be an intricate surgery, connecting the nerves, tissue, and skin. Rehabilitation would take years, while the arm becomes a working part of Swedarsky’s body. Initially, the arm would not have any feeling and be supported by a sling and anti-rejection drugs.

Swedarsky got the call in June 2015, exactly one year after his arm was amputated,* and two years after the accident. There was an arm that was a close enough match to his own, and the deceased’s family gave permission for the donation.

“I would really like to meet them someday,” Swedarsky says. “Especially once I get the arm working. Rocky. I call him Rocky.” Rocky, the arm, came from Philadelphia and has darker hair and skin than Swedarsky. But the hands, especially the fingers, look remarkably similar.

Within 12 hours of receiving the news, the arm was delivered, and Swedarsky prepared for surgery. Since the surgery, he has attended almost-daily rehabilitation at Hopkins, which will continue for the foreseeable future. He, his wife, and their 8-month-old baby, who had been living in Alexandria, Virginia, are in the process of moving to Canton.

In addition to his food and event companies, two branches of which are local—Charm City Food Tours and 4Lobe Baltimore—Swedarsky has his sights set on yet another venture. He would like to start a program dedicated to folks who find themselves, or their loved ones, in the same unfortunate position he was in.

Swedarsky says only 10 percent of amputees lose arms or hands, arm prosthetics are not advanced, and many people don’t understand their options during the critical moments when they are making choices about doctors and hospitals. He wants to offer a program of support to these people.

“When things like this happen,” Swedarsky says, “you try to make sense out of it. You try to see what can come of it. Something good, something positive. Because it’s hard to spin it, otherwise. Because it just sucks. There’s nothing you can say, nothing you can do. But at the same time, life keeps going. So once I help myself, and get myself fixed up, [that program] will be my big thing.” As for the multiple instruments he used to play: “I want them all back,” he says.

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