July 3, 2013 -- After hiding his face for 15 years, Richard Lee Norris has stepped into the spotlight for a book about the surgery that saved his life.
Norris made headlines in 2012 when he received a full face transplant – the result of a 36-hour operation that swapped his scarred skin and shattered bones with tissue from a donor. Now he's sharing his story in "The Two Faces of Richard," a biography punctuated with never-before-seen black and white photos of his amazing transformation.
"This book shows that it's possible to go through hell and come out on the other side," said Coos Hamburger, a photojournalist and author of the e-book recently released on Amazon.
The story begins on Sept. 10, 1997, when the Remington 12-gauge pump shotgun Norris was repositioning in a gun cabinet emptied a round in his face.
"Richard's memory of the details was virtually obliterated along with his chin, jaws, mouth, nose and tongue," Coos wrote in his book, describing the horrific accident that landed Norris in a medically-induced coma as doctors raced to save his life and salvage remnants of his face. "He recalls only a vague fog of thoughts tied together like a cobweb as he gradually recovered in the hospital weeks later."
When Norris awoke from a series of surgeries to repair the near-fatal damage, he couldn't believe what he saw.
"The high ballistic shot had removed everything from just at the center of my eyes to the bottom of my chin," Norris recalled in the book. "For the longest time I didn't even want to see what my face looked like. I didn't want to feel it nor even have people see me look that way."
Norris said he "fell into a recluse state," admitting in the book he sometimes felt like suicide was "the best option."
"I would always walk with my head held low, my face covered up with a surgical mask, trying to hide from the world," he recalled. "I only shopped at places where I knew the people who worked there or I would go late at night when there were fewer people around."
"The best part of my day was when I was asleep and living in a normal world," he added.
Hamburger met Norris in 2011 while working on a book about shock trauma at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
"I remember him asking why anyone would want to share the most difficult moment of their life," Hamburger said of an early encounter with Norris. "I said every person comes at it from a slightly different perspective, but many people are motivated to share their story so that someone else doesn't have to endure what they did."
Norris, who had "virtually no photographs" of himself from after the accident, agreed to let Hamburger document his struggle amid the looming prospect of a face transplant – a pioneering procedure fraught with risks.
"I remember standing with Richard in the lobby of a hotel, and there was a couple with a young child checking out. The girl peered around the corner just as Rich was in the process of changing his mask, and she was just petrified," Hamburger said. "I could see how much that hurt him. It was really the first time I got a sense of why he'd gotten to the point of considering a transplant with all its risks, including death. Living the way he did, in many ways, was untenable."
Just three months later, in March 2012, Norris received the fullest face transplant to date at the University of Maryland Medical Center. His new jaws, teeth, tongue and skin: the generous gift of a family mourning the loss of their 22-year-old son, Joshua Aversano, who was brain dead after being struck by a van.
"Not only were the two compatible physiologically; similar size faces, same hair color, same skin complexion, same blood type, but the similarity in lifestyle choices was almost a smile of destiny," Hamburger wrote, adding that Joshua was nearly the same age as Norris at the time of his accident. "The coincidences were genuinely uncanny – but would, in time, offer some comfort to the Aversanos – knowing Richard would be a perfect steward for their son's legacy."
Hamburger documented the marathon operation and its incredible result, describing in his book the moment Norris' mother, Sandy, saw her son's new face for the first time and rushed to call her husband back in Virginia.
"Eddy," she said, according to Hamburger. "He looks like Richard we had before… and he's beautiful.'"
Now 38 years old and more than a year out from his life-changing operation, Norris is living outside the shadows, dedicating his life to helping people with facial trauma.
"He is especially committed to helping wounded warriors, recently afflicted with the injuries and the physical and emotional damage he had come to know so well for so long," Hamburger wrote in his book, adding that Norris plans to start a Foundation for Facial Trauma to help cover the cost of surgery.
Norris has also stayed in touch with his donor's parents, Randy and Gwen Aversano.
"Richard is acutely aware of the sacrifice this family has made, not only for him but for other organ recipients," Hamburger said. "He has dedicated his life to honoring Joshua's legacy and to carrying forth his desire to help others."