Wife: Husband's Face Transplant Donation 'A Blessing'

Of all the ways she could have described meeting the man who now wears her husband's face, Susan Whitman said it was "a great joy."

Before Whitman's husband, Joseph Helfgot, died during a heart transplant last month, he made it absolutely clear that should the worst happen, he wanted his organs donated to those who needed them.

"We talked about a lot of things that would happen if he didn't make it. But one of the things that we talked about was donation," Whitman said. "When you're waiting desperately for an organ, you certainly want to make sure that you can reciprocate if something goes wrong."

After he died — tests showed he suffered a series of strokes during the operation — it became clear that another man needed him desperately.

In 2005, James Maki fell on the electrified third rail of a Boston subway track. He was badly burned and lost his nose, upper lip, cheeks, bone muscle and nerves in the accident.

While the surgeries before the face transplant restored some function, he still was missing a nose and otherwise grossly disfigured. For three years he struggled to eat and speak.

"It is hard for us to imagine how difficult it was for Jim," Dr. Bohdan Pomahac of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston said in a press conference last month.

The Joy of Giving a Face

Then on April 9, the day before Helfgot's funeral, doctors performed a 17-hour surgery to graft Helfgot's face onto Maki's. Surgeons replaced Maki's nose, hard palate, upper lip, skin, muscles and nerves.

After Maki recovered, he was able to meet the family that gave him a new chance at life.

"I want to say thank you to Susan and her husband Joseph for the gift they have given me. I will be forever grateful," Maki said. "I also want to thank the doctors and nurses who have given me a new chance to live my life. ... I now see this chance as a way to start fresh."

For Susan Whitman, it was a happy end to a great tragedy.

"Joseph's life ended too soon, but it is my great joy to meet Jim," she said. "It's a miracle and a blessing."

For Whitman, seeing Maki's new face didn't mean looking at Helfgot's image again.

"It's virtually impossible for anyone to know someone has received someone else's face, nor do they look anything like that person," Whitman said. "I think the nose was a little bit identifiable, probably because my husband had a very nice Jewish nose. Other than that no, I think he looked just like Jim and Jim feels he looks like Jim and that's really important."

"I saw James Maki. I didn't see my husband at all, not at all." She said donating a face is much different than donating other organs.

"It's what identifies us as human beings in great part. It's how we communicate," Whitman said. "To take their face and effectively recover it and use parts of it again is just very hard to wrap your mind around, it's hard to separate that from the fact it's just another organ like a heart or a kidney or a liver."

Face Transplant Regulations to Tighten

Maki's procedure is so rare that only a handful of surgeons worldwide have any experience with it. Patients are rarer still.

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