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21-Year Old Is U.S.’s Youngest Face Transplant Recipient

Katie+Stubblefield+before+she+shot+herself+in+the+face+in+a+suicide+attempt+%28left%29+and+after+her+face+transplant+surgery+in+May+%28right%29.
Katie Stubblefield before she shot herself in the face in a suicide attempt (left) and after her face transplant surgery in May (right).

Katie Stubblefield before she shot herself in the face in a suicide attempt (left) and after her face transplant surgery in May (right).

Katie Stubblefield before she shot herself in the face in a suicide attempt (left) and after her face transplant surgery in May (right).

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It is normal for people to look into the mirror and scrutinize their faces for numerous flaws, while forgetting just how marvelous the organ truly is. It confirms identity, expresses emotion, communicates meaning, and allows for experiencing the world through the five senses. Those who constantly wish for a new face do not imagine how devastating it would be to lose it. This was the case for Katie Stubblefield, whose perception was completely altered after the events that took place in March of 2014.

At just 18-years old, it seemed Stubblefield had hit an all-time low; her boyfriend broke up with her, her mother was just fired, and her pain from recent surgery made life almost unbearable. All of these occurrences led for Stubblefield to shoot herself in the face with a hunting rifle in the bathroom of her Mississippi home. The one to find her was her brother Robert, who was in shock from what he discovered. “Her face was gone,” he recalled, still unsettled by the memory.

Stubblefield miraculously survived the suicide attempt, but was in for a long road of recovery that required several months in the hospital. The damage was incredibly severe as she had lost her forehead, nose and sinuses, most of her mouth, and much of the bones that make up the jaw and front of the face. Although her eyes remained, they were askew and impaired.

After several hospital visits and opinions from doctors, a surgeon had suggested the idea of a face transplant to the family, who had never considered the procedure.  “I had no clue what a face transplant was,” Stubblefield told CNN. “When my parents helped explain everything to me, I was very excited to get a face again and to have function again.”

Stubblefield was ecstatic for the miraculous second chance, but it took major consideration due to the high risk of rejection and infection. If Stubblefield’s immune system rejected the donor organ, it could lead to organ failure, which is extremely lethal.

The decision to continue with the transplant was definite, and Stubblefield was on the transplant list for over a year before a donor was found. The woman’s name was Andrea Schneider, a 31- year old organ donor who had recently died from drug overdose. She was a great match, and the wheels began to turn, setting the process to give Stubblefield a new face into motion.

Prior to finding the match, surgeons at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio had used 3D printing to reconstruct 90 percent of the jaw using Stubblefield’s older sister, Olivia McCay, as a template. Dr. Brian Gastman, a plastic surgeon at the clinic who led Stubblefield’s surgery commented on the grueling process of completion, but with a hopeful undertone, “Knowing this patient now has the opportunity to live a functional life because of her transplant is the greatest reward.”

The surgery was performed over the span of 31 hours with 11 surgeons participating. The surgery was paid for by the U.S. Department of Defense through Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine. It was a success and Stubblefield’s transplant was the clinic’s third face transplant and the 40th known in the world. The world’s first successful face transplant was conducted at Vall d’Hebron University Hospital in Spain of 2010.

Stubblefield is the youngest recipient in U.S. history. Previous to this milestone operation, she had undergone 22 surgeries for over two years to rebuild parts of her nose, forehead, and mouth. Stubblefield still has difficulty speaking clearly, but has no trouble expressing her excitement for future plans. Contemplating these past years, Stubblefield plans to attend online college to become a motivation speaker, and hopes to raise awareness about suicide and those who suffer from mental health issues. “Life is amazing,” Stubblefield reflects. “Life is beautiful.”

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21-Year Old Is U.S.’s Youngest Face Transplant Recipient