Face Transplant Patient Delights in Transformation

Richard Lee Norris received a face transplant following a gun accident. (Image credit: University of Maryland Medical Center)

A 37-year-old Virginia man who received the world's fullest face transplant in March said he no longer lives as a recluse.

Richard Lee Norris was disfigured in a 1997 gun accident that claimed his nose, lips and part of his jaw. But during a 36-hour operation, doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center gave Norris a new face from his scalp to his neck, complete with bones, muscles, nerves and skin.

"People used to stare at me because of my disfigurement. Now they can stare at me in amazement and in the transformation I have taken," Norris said in a prepared statement. "I can now start working on the new life given back to me."

To see other face transplants through the years, click here.

For 15 years, Norris hid behind a surgical mask and put off public outings until nighttime so fewer people would see his face.

"I can now go out and not get the stares and have to hear comments that people would make," he said.

With his new face, Norris can eat, taste, smell, smile and talk.

"Richard is exceeding my expectations this soon after his surgery, and he deserves a great deal of credit for the countless hours spent practicing his speech and strengthening his new facial muscles," said Norris' surgeon, Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez of the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. "He's one of the most courageous and committed individuals I know."

The goal for Norris's transplant, according to Rodriguez, was to "restore facial harmony and functional balance in the most aesthetic manner possible."

The marathon operation was one of 23 done worldwide since 2005, and one of six done in the U.S., including those done on Charla Nash and Dallas Weins.

"We began this research more than 10 years ago when we saw the devastating injuries sustained by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan from improvised explosive devices," Dr. Stephen Bartlett, surgeon-in-chief and senior vice president at the University of Maryland Medical System, said in a written statement. "Now having seen how this surgery has changed Richard's life, we are even more dedicated to researching ways to improve facial transplantation and helping more patients, including military veterans, return to normal lives after undergoing this same surgery."

Norris still goes for routine checkups to make sure his face is healing properly on top of regular sessions of physical and speech therapy.

"Each day it improves a little more," he said of his ability to talk. "I am doing well. I spend a lot of my time fishing and working on my golf game. I am also enjoying time with my family and friends."

ABC News' Dr. Julielynn Wong contributed to this story.

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