First U.S. face transplant recipient dies, leaving an important legacy

By | August 19, 2020

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Carmen had also been attacked by a man, her ex-husband. Her first transplant, which she received in 2013, failed. Despite taking strong doses of immuno-suppressive drugs, her body slowly rejected the new face, to the point where she could no longer eat and was in constant pain. Carmen received a second donated face in July 2020 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, in the same month that Connie died.

Connie Culp, shown after an injury to her face, left, and then as she appeared after a face transplant. Cleveland Clinic via Getty Images

Like Carmen, Connie benefited from an extraordinarily skilled and specialist team of surgeons, nurses, psychologists and physiotherapists committed to the care of their patient, and the willingness of a donor family to give up the organ of the body most associated with their loved one’s identity. We are currently researching face transplants, working with these extended surgical teams, and with people with facial differences, to understand the experiences of everyone involved in this headline-grabbing surgery.

An experimental procedure

Face transplants are still an experimental form of transplantation. They involve the transfer of skin, fat, muscle, nerves, bone, tongue, teeth and scalp from a dead donor to repair severely damaged features of a recipient. The primary aim is to help a person to eat, speak, blink and make facial expressions, but they are also expected to improve self-esteem and social relationships.

Unlike other kinds of organ transplant, face transplants are generally considered life-enhancing rather than life-saving. Yet they come with the same rejection risks as a new kidney, lung or heart. Recipients must take strong immunosuppressive drugs with multiple side-effects to prevent their body rejecting the transplant. The first face transplant patient, Isabelle Dinoire, received her transplant in November 2005 and experienced several episodes of rejection before her death from cancer in 2016.

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