A young father who was terribly disfigured in an electrical accident showed off his new look alongside doctors who performed the US first full face transplant.
Visibly moved as he described how his young daughter called him “handsome” and how the first whiff of hospital food was so tantalising, 26-year-old Dallas Wiens said there were no words to thank the anonymous donor and his family.
“I can never express what has been done, what I have been given,” said Mr Wiens at a press conference with doctors who performed the operation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the northeastern city of Boston.
The world’s first full face transplant was unveiled last year by doctors in Spain, a European feat that followed the first partial face transplant in 2005, carried out on a French woman who had been mauled by a dog.
Mr Wiens, who lives in Texas, burned his face off in November 2008 after the left side of his head touched an electrical wire while he was working up high in a cherry picker.
The high voltage electrical wire destroyed his nose and lips and blinded him. Mr Wiens lost his left eye in the accident and has no light perception remaining in his right eye.
The hospital said Mr Wiens was not likely to resemble the donor.
“The underlying facial bones and muscle of the recipient will change the shape of the facial tissue graft from the donor and will largely determine its shape and final appearance,” it said in a statement.
At the press conference, Mr Wiens wore black sunglasses and a dark goatee beard, and appeared swollen on one side of his face.
“To me the face feels natural. It feels as if it has become my own,” said Mr Wiens, acknowledging that he still feels numb in some places and needs to continue rehabilitation work to rebuild nerve function.
Plastic surgeon Bohdan Pomahac led the team of physicians, nurses and anesthesiologists who worked for more than 15 hours to replace Mr Wiens’s nose, lips, facial skin, nerves and muscles.
“He was quite literally a man without a face,” Dr Pomahac said.
The operation was done in March by a 30-strong team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which hailed the first full face transplant performed in the United States as a sign of medical progress.
“In plastic surgery this represents, at least in my mind, a new frontier of reconstructive surgery, of what is possible now,” said one of his doctors, Jeffrey Janis of Parkland Hospital.
“This really opens up an immense amount of doors, and represents a lot of hope where maybe before there was none.” Elof Eriksson, chief of plastic surgery at Brigham and Women’s hospital, said Wiens has been through the first three steps – the initial workup, the surgery and the post-operation healing.
“Dallas has successfully gone through the first three stages, but still has to regain nerve and muscle function,” said Dr Eriksson.
The world’s first full face transplant took place in Spain, and doctors at Vall d’Hebron hospital in Barcelona showed off their work to the public in July 2010.
The 31-year-old recipient, identified as Oscar, was injured in a shooting accident and spoke at a televised news conference with considerable difficulty. He could not close his mouth and his face appeared swollen.
The first successful partial face transplant was performed in France in 2005 on Isabelle Dinoire, a 38-year-old woman who had been mauled by her dog.
Since then about a dozen face transplant operations have been carried out in China, the US and Spain.
Mr Wiens also spoke to reporters with some difficulty, but said he has already begun to regain his sense of smell.
“The first thing I was able to smell was hospital lasagna. You wouldn’t imagine it, but it smelled delicious,” he said.
“The ability to breathe through my nose normally, that in itself was a major gift,” he said.
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