First Recipient of US Face Transplant Speaks


Connie Culp, the recipient of the first US almost-total face transplant spoke to the media for the first time.

The 46-year-old mother of two had the middle section of her face shot off by her husband in 2004. Surgeons in Cleveland, OH, replaced 80 percent of her face with that of a dead female donor in a 22-hour operation, and it seemed that her appearance before the media was in large part to thank the donor's family. The transplant is only the fourth to be carried out.

Because of her injuries, Culp had no bone support and was unable to eat or to breathe without a tube in her windpipe. Surgeons used donor tissue to replace her nose, mouth, lips and chin.

Experts say that face-transplant recipients may feel remorse, grief, and guilt toward the donor, but my first thoughts were about how radically Culp's husband's violence has altered her life. Our faces, for better or worse, are integral to how we're seen and treated in the world. This story reminds me of an autobiography Lucy Grealy wrote about having part of her jaw removed due to cancer. To get a sense of how wrenching her experience was, read more.

Diagnosed with a rare form of jaw cancer at age 9, Lucy Grealy spent the rest of her brief life dealing with reconstructive surgeries (a third of her jaw had to be removed) and a world which seemed to privilege physical beauty above all.

In Autobiography of a Face, Grealy, who went on to attend Sarah Lawrence College and discover a love of poetry (apparent in this lyrical memoir), explores what it meant to have an unideal face in such a world. Although she seemed to come to some kind of peace with her situation, after her final reconstructive surgery, she became addicted to OxyContin, and eventually heroin, and died of a presumed accidental overdose in 2002.

Our best wishes to the brave Connie Culp. With the love of her two kids and family, and her sense of humor — she joked with reporters, "Here I am, five years later . . . I got me my nose" — she's got a new lease on life.

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