Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center performed the most extensive full face transplant to date, replacing everything from the hairline to the collar bone of a 37-year-old man, including the upper and lower jaw bones, teeth, and a portion of the tongue. The operation took place over 36 hours on March 19 and 20 and involved more than 200 medical professionals.
The face transplant was part of a 72-hour marathon of organ donation at the center, in which five patients received organs from one anonymous donor.
The effort is being hailed as remarkable for the generosity of the donor and the scope of the operation, as well as scientific advancements that enabled the transplant.
A week after the surgery, the recipient of the face, Richard Norris, of Hillsville, Virginia, is moving his jaws, opening and closing his eyes, brushing his teeth and shaving, doctors said in a press conference Tuesday.
Norris suffered a gun accident in 1997 that left him with just a skull, eyes and part of his jaw. Doctors said he has been living in near seclusion since the accident, wearing a mask when he went out in public. Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, the surgeon leading the operation, said he had performed 12 different surgeries on Norris since 2005, but was never able to restore his face.
With the transplant, "we were able to restore those 15 years that he's lost and make him a functioning member of society once again," Rodriguez said.
The face transplant was part of a 72-hour operation at the hospital when four other patients received organs donated from the same anonymous donor – a heart, lung, liver and kidney.
The process began at 9:30 pm on Saturday, March 17, when the donor was identified and doctors began to evaluate characteristics for a match-like skin tone and overall health. At 4 a.m. on Monday, the team began a 12-hour effort to remove the face from the donor. Doctors then connected the bones, muscles, tongue, nerves and blood vessels to Norris, using computers to guide them. The surgery was complete at 4 p.m. on Tuesday.
The surgery was the 23rd face transplant since doctors began doing the procedure in 2005.
Dr. Stephen Bartlett, chair of the department of surgery at the University of Maryland, said the operation was the culmination of 10 years of research funded by the Office of Naval Research, which hopes to put the knowledge to use for soldiers injured in combat.
Bartlett said his research team discovered that using the whole jaw bone made it easier for the body to handle the transplant.
"We believe that scientific finding will allow Mr. Norris to have much more long term chance of success with much lower levels of immunosuppression," Bartlett said.
Rodriguez said Norris has been able to see his new face already.
Three days after surgery, "he wanted to see a mirror," Rodriguez said. After seeing his new face, "he put the mirror down and thanked me and hugged me."