WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES Face transplant recipients all have something in common
Before the First World War, the world took the first steps of skin grafting, and bits of copper painted in skin colour were used on disfigured soldiers in the hope of improving their appearance.
Then everything changed with the arrival of the “pioneer of plastic surgery,” British doctor Harold Gillies.
What Dr Gillies did was phenomenal.
In 1917, his work set up the first steps of what we now know as a face transplant – or at the time, “flesh mask” or “skin flap.”
His first successful patient was a young man named Walter Yeo, who had lost both his upper and lower eyelids.
Using the skin from Walter’s neck and chest, Dr Gillies created the first face transplant – a piece of flesh placed in the mid-part of the patient’s face.
Now, fast forward to today – not only have we been able to successfully re-plant a patient’s own face back on, but we have come so far as to witness the first full face transplant, as well as the first African-American minority face transplant.
With over 40 face transplants and reconstructions performed worldwide, we take a look at the most emotional, rarest and complex cases.
Katie Stubbfield – US
Katie Stubbfield’s story is incredible and one that transformed her life completely in a matter of seconds.
In 2014, when she was just 18-year-old, Katie impulsively tried to shoot herself in the face during an attempted suicide.
It started after she began battling with health conditions and had her appendix taken out, following this her boyfriend had also broken up with her.
During the same time, her parents had lost their jobs and everything seemed to be falling apart.
On March 25 2014, unable to battle with the emotions in that one moment, Katie made the impulsive decision to grab her brother’s rifle and shoot herself under the chin.
As soon as she was rushed to hospital, immediately doctors began reconstructing her face.
Katie’s mum Alesia revealed what the doctor had said to her: “He said, ‘this is the worst wound I’ve ever seen, and I think the only thing that will give her any kind of life again will be a face transplant,'” reported Abcnews.
The next three years were filled with surgeries, not including her face transplant.
Finally in 2017, she received the call, a donor had been received.
Adrea Schneider, a 31-year-old single mother who had struggled with addiction and died of an overdose, fitted the characteristics needed for Katie’s transplant.
She became the youngest person in the US to receive a full face transplant, aged 21.
The 31-hour-operation was the first of its kind, transplanting the whole face from the scalp down to the neck.
“When I touch my face now with my hand, I feel whole again,” reported Abcnews.
“I wanted my face back, and I was willing to do whatever it took to get my face back.
“Before my transplant, people looked at me like I was disgusting,” Katie continued. ‘But now I can go out in a crowd, and people will just see me as another person and not as some kind of monster.”
Robert Chelsea – US
The first African-American face transplant is one that reflects not just how far we’ve come in medicine, but in the struggles of beginning to fix the relationship minorities have around trusting the medical system.
Holding on to your identity and race is even more difficult in a situation where a face transplant in itself is so rare, with 65% of American donors being white.
What Robert Chelsea suffered through is an incredible journey of preserving his identity, where many would struggle.
Robert rejected his first chance to get a transplant, because the donor’s skin colour was fairer than his own natural colour.
According to the Times, he couldn’t bear the thought of becoming “a totally different looking person.”
In 2013, Robert Chelsea, 68, was involved in a horrific car accident where a drunk driver crashed into his stationary car and it burst into flames, engulfing Robert.
The accident led to tissue death in his lips and nose and his face was left severely scarred. He was left with virtually no lips and unable to eat and drink without tilting at a certain angle.
Initially, Robert was on the list for a partial face transplant, however due to his skin colour he was encouraged to go for a full face transplant, to avoid the complications of blending his exact skin colour with the donor’s.
After a six-year wait, in July 2019, he finally got the call he had been waiting for.
Doctors had received a donor matching his skin tone – the 16-hour-operation made him the first black person to receive a full face transplant, and also the oldest.
His full journey can be followed here.
Hatice Nergis – Turkey
The first “3D” transplant was conducted on a woman in Turkey in 2012, who was shot in the face and had no chances of her original injuries healing.
Hatice’s story created history – although she was the third face transplant patient in Turkey, she was the first to receive the three dimensional transplant at Ankara’s Gazi University Faculty of Medicine.
In the challenging 11-hour-operation, Hatice received skin, bones, cartilage, the upper lip, even skin on the inside of the mouth along with six front teeth.
In 2006, aged 20, she was shot in the face which resulted in severe tissue loss to her nose, chin and upper lip.
She ultimately received a 28-year-old donor’s partial transplant and was reportedly very happy with the results.
The World Bulletin reported at a press conference she said: “I would like to offer my condolences to the family of the donor. I would also like to donate my organs. Donating organs saves lives. It saved my life, and I would like to save the lives of others.”
She added: “When I looked at myself in the mirror for the first time, I was a little shocked. I liked my entire face, but my nose the best. I was not expecting it to look this nice.
“I would like to thank my doctors.”
Maurice Desjardins – Canada
In 2011, in what felt like a nightmare, Maurice Desjardins, 65, accidentally shot himself in the face with a hunting rifle.
His whole face was severely damaged including the skin, bones, nerves, nose, mouth and teeth – Maurice’s face was heavily disfigured.
The next few years were extremely challenging for him and his wife, Gaétane, who ultimately gave up her job to care for him.
Surgeons had created an air passage so he could breathe better, by making a hole in the front of his neck to his windpipe.
On his GoFundMe page, Maurice writes: “I was living without a face for 7 years. I was not able to speak, eat, drink, or breath properly. I was dependant on a tracheostomy. I was was waiting for the transplant for 3 years.”
In May 2018, he finally received a transplant and regained his identity.
He said: “It was the greatest gift and a second chance at life.”
Led by surgeon, Dr Daniel Borsuk, Maurice was told of the complications and the chances of survival if he were to go ahead with the operation.
Dr Borsuk recalls the heartbreaking conversation: “I said, ‘Maurice, you could die on the table, or even right after the operation.
“He replied, ‘Do you think I have a life now?'”
Maurice added: “I am always being judged by others. I’d rather die than keep living like this.
“I don’t care what face I’m going to get, as long as I look like everybody else,” reports CBCnews.
Although he is still unable to speak, the operation transformed his life and gave him back his identity.