A short history of face transplants
Efforts at facial reconstruction go back to the 1400s, but it wasn’t until the emergence of both modern medicine and modern warfare that significant advances were made. The Post’s Alexa Taylor provides some of the milestones of the last century. 1917
The machine-guns and trenches of the First World War left thousands of soldiers disfigured. Finely crafted masks made from copper, then painted to match patients’ skin tones improved their appearance to a limited extent. But the British doctor Harold Gillies, now considered a pioneer of plastic surgery, went much further — creating a sort of flesh mask or rudimentary skin graft. His first success was Walter Yeo, who suffered severe burns in combat, losing both his upper and lower eyelids. Skin was taken from his neck and chest and placed over his mid-face, allowing him to blink.
Dr. Archibald McIndoe, the younger cousin of Dr. Gillies, advanced cosmetic surgery by refining the way single slabs of skin, up to the size of an adult palm, were transferred from one part of the body to another. This brought dramatic improvements in the reconstruction of eyelids, lips, cheeks, foreheads and ears. McIndoe also ameliorated patients’ hospital experience, serving them beer as they recovered. Second World War fighter pilots who received experimental treatments from McIndoe formed the famous “Guinea Pig” drinking club, which continued meeting for more than 70 years.
Eleven-year-old Sandeep Kaur was working in a field near her home in India when her hair became tangled in a grass-cutting machine, pulling the flesh from her scalp and face in two jagged pieces. Doctors at Christian Medical College and Hospital decided to forego skin grafts and instead reconnect Kaur’s arteries and veins with her own skin.
Attempting to rouse her from an overdose of sleeping pills, Isabelle Dinoire’s dog gnawed off her nose, chin and lips. To restore her face, French doctors transplanted a triangle of tissue from a brain-dead donor. The procedure made history, but was also highly controversial. And Dinoire, made more susceptible to diseases by the immunosuppressant drugs she was taking, died of cancer in 2016.
Li Guoxing received a partial face transplant from Chinese doctors following a brutal bear attack. But two years after receiving a new cheek, upper lip, nose and eyebrow from a brain-dead donor, he died after foregoing immunosuppressant drugs.
When Connie Culp’s husband shot her at close range, doctors were tasked with reconstructing 80 per cent of her face. A team at Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic restored her nose, cheeks, eye and the roof of her mouth using the muscles, bones and nerves of an organ donor.
A man identified as “Oscar” received the world’s first full facial transplant in Spain after accidentally shooting himself in the face. Doctors in Barcelona gave him new skin, cheekbones, facial muscles, teeth, palate, lips and jaw.
While repainting the side of a church, the crane Dallas Wiens was standing on collided with a high-voltage power line. Upon recovery, he was left with a smooth patch of skin traversing his face — scant of eyes, lips or a nose. Doctors performed a full facial transplant at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, reconstructing his muscles, nerves and missing features. Wiens remains blind, but the surgery restored his ability to smell, taste and touch.
In 1997, Richard Lee Norris held a loaded shotgun to his face during an argument with his mother. It accidentally went off, maiming everything but his eyes. Fifteen years later, Norris received a full face transplant at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
A Polish man identified as Grzegorz received a face transplant in record time following a workplace accident that left a portion of his brain exposed to infection. Just three weeks after his face was torn off by a stonecutting machine, doctors restored his nose, upper jaw and cheeks using donated bones and tissues.
In 2001, a burning roof collapsed on volunteer firefighter Patrick Hardison, charring his skin and leaving him without hair, ears or eyelids. Hardison underwent 70 surgeries and skin grafts but remained disfigured and feared going out in public. A full face transplant dramatically improved his appearance and his vision.
France’s Jerome Hamon suffers from a genetic condition that causes disfiguring tumours. He underwent his first full face transplant in 2010. But seven years later, his new face started to die. When another donor face became available, doctors at Paris’ Georges Pompidou Hospital replaced the original tissues. Hamon is a groundbreaking case because bodies that have rejected an organ are generally unable to accept a second transplant.
In a suicide attempt, then 18-year-old Katie Stubblefield blew off her face with a hunting rifle. She survived but was left unrecognizable. Her sinuses, mouth, jaw and facial bones were destroyed, and her eyes were badly damaged. A face transplant at Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic has restored Stubblefield’s facial structure and functions.