Monday, 2 April 2012

IMFW: Face Transplants

Today's Interesting Medical Fact of the Week is all about face transplants! Recently an American man named Richard Lee Norris received what is allegedly the most extensive face transplant ever carried out, in which he received a new jaw, teeth, tongue and nose. The pictures are pretty incredible. After being severely disfigured by a gun accident, Mr Norris had been living as a recluse for fifteen years, wearing a mask whenever he had to leave home - and he had lost his sense of smell completely. That's all changed.

Only the 23rd facial transplant ever carried out, the operation was a gruelling 36 hours long; all Mr Norris' facial tissue from the scalp to the back of the neck was completely replaced. As with every transplant, there is a risk of rejection; recipients of face transplants have to take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their life, which increase their risk of cancer and infection. The first Chinese recipient of a partial facial transplant, Li Guoxing, died in 2008 just two years after his transplant, when he either stopped taking his immunosuppressant drugs or failed to take them correctly. There is also the potential psychological issue of patients finding it difficult to adjust to their new face; although such transplants don't give the recipient the face of the donor, nevertheless even after the most successful operation they will never regain their appearance from before their injury.

The world's first face transplant came in 2005 in France, on Isabelle Dinoire, whose face was so badly mauled in a dog attack that she was left unable to speak or eat. Dinoire has had problems with her transplant, including kidney failure and two episodes in which her body tried to reject the transplant. But from the interviews she's given, it seems that she has been happy with the results. The first full facial transplant came in March 2010, when a Spanish man who had accidentally shot himself in the face received a completely new jaw, nose, teeth, cheekbones and skin.

Face transplants can be controversial because some people see them as being done for "cosmetic", rather than purely medical reasons. Yet if you look at the people who have received facial transplants, it's clear that in every case their disfigurement affects their lives in much more than a purely "cosmetic" way. These are people so badly injured that they can no longer eat, drink, or - in some cases - breathe independently. For them, the risk of rejection and of a shortened lifespan due to the immunosuppressant drugs is worth taking in order to have the chance to live a more normal life.

Equally, as the story of Richard Lee Norris shows, even for those who remain independent after injury, the effects of severe facial disfigurement are much more wide-reaching than the purely medical, affecting employment, relationships and simply the ability to leave the house without feeling the need to cover your face. It's difficult for those of us who haven't experienced disfigurement to understand just how significant an impact it can have on people's lives. Obviously, face transplantation is an extreme step and certainly not one which is suitable for most people with serious disfigurement - but it should be available as a last option for those who cannot be treated by other means.

Some doctors have raised concerns over the way these transplants are followed up, suggesting that there should be greater emphasis on psychological analysis of patients, to gain deeper understanding of just how facial transplants affect recipients.

Connie Culp, the first US recipient of a face transplant.
The Guardian has a short history of face transplants here.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I just saw the photos and watched the video on the BBC website, and that face transplant was amazing! It is really heartwarming that doctors were able to change this guy's life!