Face Transplant: 'Resilience' Saw Woman Through

Diane Sawyer sits down with Connie Culp in a GMA EXCLUSIVE Friday.

ByABC News
May 6, 2009, 11:08 AM

May 6, 2009— -- 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.

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.

"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."