Face Transplant: 'Resilience' Saw Woman Through

Photo: First U.S. Face Transplant Patient Appears Before Cameras: Connie Culp, 46, Said She Is Grateful for the Ways the Surgery Changed Her Life

A shotgun blast shattered Connie Culp's face in September 2004, smashing her nose, cheek and jaw. It robbed her of the ability to see, smell, even to smile.

The shot came from the gun of Thomas Culp, her husband. His failed attempt at a murder-suicide sent him to prison for seven years -- and left his wife struggling to survive.

After more than 30 surgeries, Connie Culp talks about her success.
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Watch "Good Morning America" Friday, May 8, for an exclusive interview with face transplant patient Connie Culp.

Culp did survive, but while the damage to her face occurred in an instant, her unlikely journey to recovery would take far longer. Over the next four years, she endured dozens of surgeries. These procedures repaired some of the damage, but Culp remained disfigured and unable to eat or breathe on her own.

So when Culp, who became the first patient in the United States to undergo a face transplant operation last December, appeared publicly to thank the doctors who performed the surgery, the occasion was an emotional one.

VIDEO: Face transplant patient goes public
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"Well, I guess I'm the one you came to see today," said Connie Culp, now 46, of Ohio at a Tuesday press conference at the Cleveland Clinic, where a team of surgeons performed the surgery five months ago. "While I know you all want to focus on me, I think it's more important you focus on the donor family that made it so I could have this Christmas present, I guess I should say."

The 22-hour surgery, which took place over two days, garnered widespread media attention shortly after it was completed. The operation was the world's fourth foray into face transplantation surgery. Culp's identity was not released at the time of the surgery, but today she introduced herself to reporters by her first name.

Currently, doctors are waiting to see how much function Culp will regain as the nerves in the graft continue to regenerate.

"We have to wait a little bit," said Dr. Maria Siemionow, the Cleveland Clinic surgeon who led the team that performed the operation. "It is a major reconstruction ... over the next six to 12 months we will see the animation coming back to her face, but even as she is right now she's just one of us."

Face Transplant Patient Is Resilient: Doctor

"She has nose, she has eyelids, she has lips ... what else [could] you want?"

Culp required the surgery from injuries she sustained when she was shot in the face in 2004. The episode left her unable to eat, smell, or taste, according to a statement from the Cleveland Clinic. Culp was also unable to breathe without a tracheotomy.

"I just want to say when somebody has a disfigurement and don't look as pretty as you do, don't judge them, because you never know what happened to them. I was shot," Culp said.

Dr. Kathy Coffman, the psychiatrist who worked with Culp, said she was a resilient patient, having been through 27 other procedures before the face transplant, and she believes Culp will be a good ambassador to other potential patients.

"She is a very down to earth person, and she was able to approach people before she had the surgery, when she had been injured," Coffman said. "Her resilience was key."

"I'm sure she will be willing to meet with other patients [and] candidates," Siemionow said.

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