LONDON, March 24, 2008 — -- For 24 years Pascal Coler's face drew so many taunts in the street that he retreated to his home to live the painful life of a recluse.
All of that changed one night in January when he got the call: They'd found a face donor.
After 16 hours in the operating room, Coler emerged with a new face.
Laurent Lantieri, the head of plastic surgery at Henri-Mondor Hospital, says that "almost all" of Coler's face was replaced with that of a donor: new lips, cheeks, nose and mouth.
Lantieri, who took part in the operation, hails it as the world's first full face transplant.
Coler suffers from neurofibromatosis, an extremely rare condition that causes tumors to grow on a victim's face, disfiguring it beyond recognition.
Remember the movie "The Elephant Man"? The eponymous man, known in real life as Jospeh Merrick, was long believed to have suffered from the same disorder, although in recent years the prevailing theory is that Merrick suffered from a similar, but much rarer, condition known as Proteus syndrome.
Coler's condition began to take its toll when he was a little boy. As it progressed, he says, people would faint when they saw him. After 24 years of suffering, Coler was given a new face.
"At first we were quite frightened to do the transplant," said Lantieri. "We didn't know how the patient would tolerate the fact to have a new face."
Doctors cut his skin away and replaced it with the face of an unnamed donor, painstakingly connecting arteries, veins and nerves.
When his mother and sister saw his new face, Coler said, "both burst into tears of absolute happiness. It was one of the happiest days of their lives."
But Coler does not look like the anonymous donor.
"It is not like the movie 'Face Off,'" said Lantieri. In that movie, Nicholas Cage and John Travolta change faces and take on the other's identity. "Fiction," said the professor.
Coler's bone structure has not been altered, so he looks as he might have looked if his face had never been ravaged by disease. And he's happy.
"The operation revolutionized my life," Coler said. "People no longer stop and stare at me in the street. They don't make fun of me anymore."
These operations are extremely rare.
In 2005 Isabelle Dinoire received the world's first partial-face transplant -- she was given new lips, a nose and mouth after she was mauled by her dog. Now she's doing well.
In 2006 a Chinese man received a partial-face transplant after he was attacked by a bear.
France is at the forefront of the field, but surgery like this has never been carried out in the United States.
The Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston has just been given permission to try and right now it is looking for suitable patients and donors. That could take months or even years.
Coler's operation took place early last year. The immunosuppressive drugs worked. His body did not reject his new face. If it had, Coler would probably be dead.
Instead, the 30-year-old hopes for a normal life. He's started work as an accountant, plans to take up basketball and tennis again and hopes to find love for the first time.
"I'd love to find a wife," Coler said. "Settle down and have children."