Branden Lombardi is living a normal life because of the generosity of someone who died.
In his leg, Lombardi carries an eight-inch segment of someone else’s tibia, the bone that extends below the knee. Cancer had embedded itself in his own.
The 22-year-old Ahwatukee Foothills man endured a half-dozen major surgeries in the last five years. He’s gone through repeated treatments of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant.
Today, he can walk, play golf and work out at the gym because someone who died became a tissue donor.
"If there wasn’t a tissue bank, I would be looking at amputation of my leg," said Lombardi, who will attend Arizona State University in the fall.
"I always wonder who the person was. Those kinds of thoughts always enter my mind. It’s kind of a weird concept to know that something in my body came from someone else. I feel fortunate to be able to have had that happen to me."
Tissue banking can sound like a gruesome business. It is an industry that is based on dismembering bodies, packaging and processing the parts and shipping them to hospitals and surgeons.
But the end result is that people whose bodies have been damaged by disease or injury are able to lead more normal lives.
Limbs that would otherwise have to be amputated can be saved with bone or vein grafts.
Blindness can be prevented and vision restored through cornea transplants.
Heartbeats can be maintained with transplanted heart valves.
Mobility can be restored after a debilitating injury with ligaments and tendons recovered from cadavers.
Burn patients can heal when skin grafts from human donors are applied.
A single cadaver can provide organs and tissues that can save or enhance the lives of more than 50 people, according to Donor Network of Arizona, the only organ recovery organization in Arizona and one of the major tissue banks operating here.
Lombardi was a 17-year-old senior at Desert Vista High School in Ahwatukee Foothills when he gained an understanding of the tissue banking industry. He was practicing for the school’s hockey team and thought he’d injured his knee in October 1998. But when he went for treatment, doctors diagnosed bone cancer just below his knee.
Dr. Chris Beauchamp, chairman of the department of orthopedics at Mayo Clinic Scottsdale, performed the surgery in March 1999. Beauchamp estimated about 12 to 15 major bone transplants are performed at Mayo every year. As recently as the 1980s, a condition like Lombardi’s would likely have required amputation, Beauchamp said. But improvements in tissue banking and artificial bone replacements have made amputations rare in those cases, he said.
When a bone graft is needed, Beauchamp said he checks with various tissue banks to see which one can supply a suitable replacement quickly. Bones must be matched to certain specifications by the tissue bank. Final fitting is done during surgery, Beauchamp said.
In Lombardi’s case, Beauchamp had to remove the lower part of his knee joint and about eight inches of the tibia where the cancer had taken root. The portion of the knee was replaced with metal prosthetics, and the donated bone was attached to that, Beauchamp said.
Without a human tissue donation, doctors could have used a metal bone replacement, Beauchamp said. However, muscles tend to bond better to human tissue and the end result is the patient generally has a better recovery, he said.
The value of the tissue banking industry extends beyond providing the raw materials for transplants like the one Lombardi had, Beauchamp said. Surgical techniques are developed and perfected using bodies donated for medical research and education.
Lombardi’s fight with bone cancer did not end with the tibia transplant. He had intense chemotherapy before and after the surgery.
In November 1999, doctors found the cancer had spread to his lungs. He had four surgeries to remove tumors from his lungs, as well as a bone marrow transplant. He also needed a prosthetic hip replacement because of the damage done by the medications he’s had to take to battle the cancer, he said.
But Lombardi recently got notice that he had passed the milestone of going two and a half years clear of cancer.
"We had a motto in our family: Whatever it takes," Lombardi said. "I used to have nightmares about waking up and only having one leg. The thing is, I always knew if that happened, as long as I was still alive, that I would be OK and that I would get through it."