Mark Burleson awoke to unimaginable pain a month after the bomb he had been disarming detonated in his hands.
"My injuries were extensive, to say the least," said the 31-year-old Marine staff sergeant, who had severe burns, shattered bones and a brain injury from the December 2011 blast in Afghanistan's Helmand province.
Burleson's right arm was gone below the elbow; his left arm spared but paralyzed.
"All the nerves were ripped from my spinal cord at the root," he said, describing the damage that drove waves of pain down the otherwise senseless and limp limb. "It felt like someone was lighting my arm on fire with a cutting torch. And, occasionally, they'd stop and tie anchors to the ends of my fingers to rip out the bones."
Powerful drugs were no match for Burleson's constant agony. And despite coming home from a war zone, the married father of three felt world's away.
"It was to the point where the kids would just walk past him because they know he couldn't bear to interact with them," said Burleson's wife, Sara. "He became like a ghost."Willing to try anything for relief, Burleson was quick to sign up for risky surgery to slice open his spine and singe the offending nerves.
"The pain was ripping our lives apart," the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based Marine said. "This was our last-ditch effort at having a normal life."
On July 26, Burleson left Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., for Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where neurosurgeon Dr. Allan Belzberg agreed to try the high-stakes, high-risk surgery.
"It's a dangerous operation, so we only use it when we've exhausted all other options," said Belzberg, who performs the procedure three or four times a year.
Using a microscope and a tiny electrode, Belzberg made 140 burns in the damaged nerves dangling from Burleson's spinal cord; nerves intermixed with healthy connections to his lower limbs.
"If you get it just right, you get rid of the pain," Belzberg said of the stressful six-hour procedure. "If you're the slightest bit off, you paralyze his leg."
But the surgery went smoothly. And one week later, Burleson is a new man, although he expects to be at Walter Reed for at least a year.
"It was like instant clarity," Burleson said.
Sara Burleson, who spoke to her husband by phone before he returned to Walter Reed Tuesday, said, "I could tell even before I saw him that it had worked. His voice sounded lighter. Even though he was groggy from the surgery, this huge weight had been lifted."
Burleson struggled to find the words to thank Belzberg, the surgeon he says saved his life.
"I love the man. I would do anything for him," he said.
Indeed, Burleson's first words after surgery, according to Belzberg, were, "Doc, I could marry you."
"This is a guy who's so tough he diffuses bombs for a living," Belzberg said. "It is so humbling. He's the real hero."