Face Transplant Veteran Reflects

The world's first face transplant patient has advice for American Connie Culp.

May 15, 2009, 6:07 PM

May 15, 2009 — -- Connie Culp has made headlines as the first American face transplant patient, but before Culp's procedure, there was the world's first -- performed on Isabelle Dinoire.

On Nov. 27, 2005, Dinoire, a 38-year-old store clerk, received the groundbreaking 15-hour surgery in Amiens, France, that replaced her lips, nose and chin.

Dinoire's face was disfigured when, unconscious after taking a handful of sleeping pills, she was attacked by her dog. Half of her face was left unrecognizable.

After showing her new face to the public in 2006, her rehabilitation and recovery began.

In a "Good Morning America" exclusive, Dinoire shared her progress and addressed the challenges and joys of life after the landmark surgery.

Three and a half years after receiving her new face, Dinoire sees things in a whole new light.

Calling herself "the new Isabelle," Dinoire explained what it feels like to look in the mirror after the operation.

"I see a new face, and it's mine," she said, "but there's always a part that's the donor's."

The challenges aren't only cosmetic. A patient can reject the transplant, and Dinoire has suffered two rejections since her operation.

To battle these and prevent any further rejections, she takes immunosuppresant medication and goes to weekly physical therapy sessions -- both of which will most likely continue for the rest of her life. But for Dinoire, the work is worth the reward.

The feeling and movement didn't return to her face all at once.

"It wasn't like this miracle moment. It was more like little feelings, and eventually, they became stronger and I was able to move [my mouth] with more flexibility," Dinoire said.

It took some time for Dinoire to see and feel her face as something that actually belonged to her.

"It was very strange. I had the impression that it wasn't a living thing, that it wasn't really part of my body. Now it feels again like my own mouth," Dinoire said.

A New Life After Face Transplant

Still, some medical ethicists question whether a cosmetic procedure is worth the pain and turmoil caused by a face transplant.

Despite the risks and controversies, Dinoire maintained, "It's medical reasons, not cosmetic reasons. One is nothing without a face."

The media clamored to talk with Dinoire after her operation in 2005. The attention has died down, but she continues to fascinate both the medical community and the world at large.

While she's made a great deal of progress since the pioneering operation, Dinoire's recovery is far from over. She is able to move her face and mouth, but sadly, she cannot yet kiss.

For Dinoire, a grandmother, this is something she looks forward to.

"I have more mobility in my lip, but I can't yet give anyone a kiss. I think that the most beautiful thing that I could give [my grandchild] would be a kiss."

When asked about the first American face transplant patient, Connie Culp, who has been recovering for only five months, Dinoire said, "I wish you immense courage."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events