It was December 10, 2008 when professor Maria Siemionow and a team of surgeons completed the first near-total face transplantation in America at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
This groundbreaking procedure took twenty-two hours. It was performed on Connie Culp – 46 year-old women whose face was bone-shattered by a shotgun blast. The patient was practically missing the front of the face. The woman could not breathe, smell, taste, or eat normally. She had only one eye.
The transplant procedure started at 5:30 p.m. Three hours later surgeons began recovering the donor’s facial tissues, dissecting the arteries, nerves, soft tissue and bones, thereby removing scar tissues from the patient. Next day doctors connected the patient’s blood vessels to the donor’s graft vessels. They checked if the are signs of an immediate rejection. When everything was fine, they started to attach the facial graft to the woman’s face. It took nine hours. The operation finished at 4:30 p.m.
Connie Culp woke up with new face muscles, nerves, skin and blood vessels. She received cheeks, lower eyelids, nose, upper lip, cheek and maxillary bone as well as some upper teeth. The recipient’s own lower lip, chin and forehead were preserved. The procedure involved transplanting 500 cm2 of tissue. Nearly 80 percent of the patient’s face was replaced.
It was the most extensive and complicated face transplantation, but the world’s first partial face transplant was performed in Amiens, France in late November 2005. Two other face transplants where accomplished in China and France, but only the operation in Cleaveland was near total.
Face transplantation was planned in Cleveland Clinic since 2004. Institutional review board said a face transplant was ethical in late 2004. The request for a donor was announced when doctors had exhausted all other treatment options for the Connie Culp.
Professor Maria Siemionow received her medical degree from Poznan Medical Academy in 1974. She also earned there her PhD in microsurgery. She has been the Director of Plastic Surgery Research and Head of Microsurgery Training at The Cleveland Clinic since 1995. She serves as a Professor of Surgery at the Karol Marcinkowski University of Medical Sciences in Poznan. She has received the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland for her contribution to the development of microsurgery and transplantation medicine.
Thanks to the operation Connie Culp can talk, smile, smell and taste food again. She expressed her high satisfaction – gave a thumbs-up sign after she woke up after the operation. The patient will need immune suppressant medications for the rest of her life but according to leading plastic surgeons, “she got her life back”.
Author: Jerzy Bednarski