Most people do not notice Edward Bonfiglio's slight limp. The former Navy medic was shot in his left leg in Afghanistan in 2009.
"My leg just completely fell out from underneath me. And just felt like the worst excruciating pain I've ever felt in my life," he said.
The bullet missed his bone but tore about 5 centimeters of his sciatic nerve. Doctors at Walter Reed Medical Center told him they could either amputate below the knee or use cadaver nerve tubing to try to regrow his severed nerve.
"It's used as scaffolding to regrow a new nerve for your body," said Lt. Commander Patrick Basile, the director of microsurgery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Traditional nerve grafts take a piece of nerve from another part of the patient's body, but some soldiers have injuries so large, they don't have that option.
"Where he had his injury, the sciatic nerve has the diameter of roughly a quarter. Usually the nerves we use to repair one's own body using one's own nerve, usually they are very small almost the size of a piece of linguini," Basile said.
Bonfiglio's recovery was long and grueling. No one knew how much sensation or function he would get back.
"I started out in a wheelchair for a very long time, then I moved to crutches, and then from crutches I moved to one crutch, and then I moved to a leg brace with a cane. And now I just walk with a leg brace," he said.
Nearly four years after his injury Bonfiglio, is training to be a Paralympian and doctors say his success will pave the way for similar surgeries in the civilian world.
Surgeons can also use synthetic nerve tubes instead of the cadaver tubes, but those are also for smaller repairs.
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