March 22, 2006

German Doctors Rebuild Chinese Teenager’s Face

BERLIN -- A Chinese teenager whose face was scorched beyond recognition as she lay unconscious on a heater has had it rebuilt by German surgeons.

In December 2001, Xiao Liewen collapsed face down on to the heater while showering, burning a hole in her skull. By the time her father found her half an hour later, she was almost dead. Doctors said it was not clear what had caused her to pass out.

Chinese doctors saved the girl's life, but she was left with no nose and only one eye, as well as open wounds on her face which would not close properly, putting her at serious risk from infection.

Initial attempts at skin grafts failed, but following a campaign to raise awareness about her plight by a German school in Shanghai, surgeons at the Klinikum Rechts der Isar at Munich's Technical University have been painstakingly rebuilding Xiao's face since 2003.

The case contrasts with that of a French woman who last year made headlines after undergoing the world's first partial face transplant. In Xiao's instance, only her own tissue was used in the reconstruction.

A team under professor Edgar Biemer gave Xiao a new nose using tissue from her stomach and closed the open sections. Further operations will lend greater symmetry to her face.

Speaking by telephone on Wednesday, Biemer said the surgery had reinvigorated Xiao, who is now 18 years old.

"Before, she totally hid herself -- she covered her head, just leaving a tiny gap for her too look out of," he said.

"That's all over. Now she goes out quite normally in Shanghai wearing a cap. She no longer has any inhibitions."

The clinic revealed details of it efforts this week for the first time to coincide with a German television documentary on Xiao which is due to be aired on Thursday evening.