Man Recovering Well After Full-face Transplant
March 28, 2012

Man Recovering Well After Full-face Transplant

Brett Smith for

In what can be described as a scenario straight out of a Hollywood movie, hospital officials report that Richard Lee Norris, of Hillsville, Va., is recovering well after a 36-hour full-face transplant surgery that not only gave him a new appearance, but also functioning teeth, tongue, and a new set of jaws.

Eduardo Rodriguez, the lead surgeon for the operation, said he hoped the transplant would give Norris his life back after living for years as a recluse. Norris was shot in the face in 1997 and had multiple life-saving and reconstructive surgeries since then. While these surgeries allowed him to continue living, his appearance prevented him from truly returning to society or holding a job. Before the surgery, Norris wore a prosthetic nose and a mask whenever he left his parents´ house where he currently resides.

The transplanted face came from an anonymous donor, whose family had been consulted specifically about donating the face along with several other life-saving organs.  Rodriguez said Norris´s new face did not resemble the donor´s and is “a combination of two individuals, a true blend."

Over 150 doctors, nurses, and medical staffers were involved in the groundbreaking operation. The procedure, which used innovative surgical and computerized techniques, was designed to give Norris a more socially acceptable face with complete functionality. Before the surgery, Norris had no nose and only part of his tongue. He was able to taste food but could not smell it.

"He could not smell for the past 15 years, and that was the most dramatic thing: immediately, on day three, he could finally smell," Rodriguez said according to The Guardian.

There have been several concerns with the procedure in the past both ethical and medical. These concerns primarily revolve around the possibility of the transplant failing. Ethicists critical of the procedure say improperly functioning facial muscles could result in a worse situation for the patient. Experts, like Iain Hutchison, of Barts and the London Hospital, who criticize the procedure based on medical grounds, say blood vessels in the donated tissue could clot, immunosuppressants could fail, or the procedure might increase the patient's risk of cancer.

Researchers at the University of Maryland found that transplants involving a large amount of bone marrow with its own blood supply saw fewer or no rejections of transplanted tissue, Norris´s surgeon Rolf Barth said. Norris will have to take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of his life, but the jawbone transplant could mean a lower risk of rejection, according to Barth.

The surgery was also enabled by research funded by the Department of Defense's Office of Naval Research. In an attempt to improve the quality of reconstructive surgery for injured veterans, the department has invested in both hand and facial surgery research. The government estimates that 200 troops might be eligible for face transplants.

This was the 23rd face transplant since doctors began doing the procedure seven years ago. The first full face transplant was performed in France in 2005 on a woman who was mauled by a Labrador. During that operation, teams of doctors grafted a nose, lips, and a chin onto the face of the 38-year-old mother of two.