Youngest face transplant in the U.S history(Graphic Photos) - Collins Uchendu's Blog

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Saturday, 2 February 2019

Youngest face transplant in the U.S history(Graphic Photos)

At 18, Katie Stubblefield lost her face. At 21, she became the youngest person in the U.S. to undergo the still experimental surgery. Follow her incredible story.


                                                        Credit: national geographic.com

The face lies on a surgical tray, eyes empty and unseeing, mouth agape, as if exclaiming, “Oh!”

Sixteen hours ago surgeons in Operating Room 19 at the Cleveland Clinic began the delicate work of removing the face from a 31-year-old woman who was declared legally and medically dead three days earlier. Soon they will take it to a 21-year-old woman who has waited more than three years for a new face.

For a moment, the face rests in its astonished solitude.

Surgeons, residents, and nurses, suddenly silent, gaze at it in awe as clinic staff, like unusually polite paparazzi, move in with cameras to document it. The face, deprived of blood, grows pale. With each second of detachment, it looks more like a 19th-century death mask.

Frank Papay, a veteran plastic surgeon, picks up the tray, carrying it carefully in his gloved hands, and walks to Operating Room 20, where Katie Stubblefield waits.

Katie will be the youngest person to receive a face transplant in the United States. Her transplant, the clinic’s third and the 40th known in the world, will be one of the most extensive, making her a lifelong subject in the study of this still experimental surgery.

Looking down at the face he carries, Papay feels a kind of reverence. It’s an amazing thing, he thinks, what some people will do for others—to give them a heart or a liver, even a face. He says a silent prayer of thanks and takes the face to its next life.

We are members of an exclusive group: animals that recognize their own faces in a mirror. Besides us, great apes, Asian Elephants Eurasian magpies, and bottlenose  dolphins are the only other animals known to recognize themselves. Dolphins as young as seven months will pose, twirl, and put their eye right up against the mirror to stare at their faces. Only humans are known to express dismay when looking at their reflections.

As we scrutinize our own faces for wrinkles and flaws, we can fail to notice what a marvelous organ the face is. Our faces are the most distinctive part of our visible body, a mysterious mosaic of the physical and the psychical. Faces are the body’s workaholics: They confer and confirm identity, express emotion, communicate meaning, perform basic functions necessary for life, and enable us to experience the world through our senses.


We are born seeking faces. Newborns turn toward them during their first moments out of the womb. Babies observe, respond to, and mimic our expressions as though it’s their job. And in a way, it is. This close study of faces is the way we all begin to understand the curious business of being human. Faces, in evolutionary terms, helped us become social animals.

                                                          Credit: nationalgeographic.com

Katie was just 18 when she lost her face. That face now exists only in photographs. In a cruel reversal of the before-and-after makeovers of reality TV and Instagram, her “before” photos show a girl with a wide smile and flawless skin, a girl so young and beautiful she could have walked off the cover of Seventeen magazine.

This photographic evidence didn’t persuade Katie. “I never thought of myself as beautiful,” she told me one day, a few months after we met. Her mother, Alesia, wasn’t surprised to hear it. Katie was a perfectionist, she said: “Katie has a big heart for other people, but she was always so hard on herself.” When I looked at the photos again, I saw a hint of fragility in her face, a glimmer of the cost of being perfect.

Katie was an irrepressible little girl, her older sister, Olivia McCay, told me. “She was fearless, very fearless, and a lot of fun.” She developed a quick, sarcastic sense of humor, a trait she shared with her brother, Robert. But as she grew older, Olivia noticed, Katie put enormous pressure on herself to achieve. “She wanted to be the best in all of these sports that she’d never even tried before,” Olivia said. “She wanted to be the best academically. She studied for hours, all the time.”

When Katie was in high school, the family made two major moves. Her sophomore year they moved from Lakeland, Florida, where she grew up, to Owensboro, Kentucky. She’d just settled in when they moved again, a year later, to Oxford, Mississippi. Her father, Robb, who’d been a minister and educator, and Alesia took jobs teaching at a small Christian school. Katie enrolled as a junior and fell in love with a classmate. They started talking about marriage. “This one was just so serious for so young,” Olivia said. “She just grew up so fast that year.” After the moves, she said, “I think she was ready to have some stability and some consistency.”

She didn’t get them. In her senior year Katie’s world unraveled. She was already contending with chronic gastrointestinal troubles and surgery. She’d had her appendix taken out the year before, and complications led to the removal of her gallbladder in January of her senior year. Two months later, the Stubblefields told me, the school’s headmaster informed them that he would not renew their contracts and then abruptly fired Alesia. Katie, who had trusted the headmaster, felt betrayed.

Then, on March 25, 2014, Katie picked up her boyfriend’s phone and found texts to another girl. When she confronted him, her family told me, he broke up with her.

Hurt and angry, Katie went to Robert’s place in Oxford, where she furiously texted and paced, back and forth. Robert called their mother. While the two were outside talking about how upset Katie was, she went into the bathroom, put the barrel of Robert’s .308-caliber hunting rifle below her chin, and pulled the trigger. When Robert kicked in the locked door, he found his little sister covered in blood. “And her face is gone,” he recalled, still shaken by the memory.

Continue reading: nationalgeographic.com

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