It’s been 5 years since the world’s first transplant was performed in France and 2 years since the Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Maria Siemionow performed the first one in the United States. There have now been 13 face transplants performed around the world and there about 200 people in the United States that are considering the procedure. Candidates for face transplants are people who have lost virtually their entire face from trauma or disease, and have no recognizable features.
These operations are a great triumph for plastic surgery, although they are dangerous. In fact, one of the patients died from medication required to prevent rejection of the new face and the other died when that medication was stopped. Self image and self esteem are so important to people that face transplant patients are willing to risk their lives just to look normal again.
The first, recipient, Connie Culp, now says “Nobody pays attention to me. I’m just another person on the street.” And that very statement is an enormous triumph for plastic surgery. Because despite the exploitative television shows, the goal of plastic surgery is to make patients look normal or average. And Connie’s procedure has helped open up the field to surgeons and patients around the world.
Face transplants take over a dozen hours to perform and cost over a quarter of a million dollars. This procedure blends science with artistry. Teams of specialized plastic surgeons called microsurgeons hook up blood vessels, nerves, muscle, and even bone between the patient and the face that has been donated usually from trauma victims. Following surgery, their bodies must heal and join the nerves to the transplanted face – only then can the face move and feel sensation. And to do that, patients trade their deformity for a lifetime of drugs that suppress immune system. Those with vision face the unique challenge of staring at another person in the mirror every day.
There’s a million jokes about face transplants and even that movie with John Travolta and Nicholas Cage, but the surgery is not done just to look better. It is done when an accident leaves a person so disfigured that normal life is not possible. Plastic surgeons are the first to state that this operation is performed for functional, not cosmetic reasons. A face that is not tethered down by scar makes eating and breathing easier.
Interestingly, transplants are nothing new to plastic surgeons. In fact, the very first kidney transplant was performed by the plastic surgeon Dr. Joseph Murray at Harvard in 1954. He opened up the entire field of transplant medicine and won the Nobel Prize for it in 1990.