First U.S. face transplant recipient thankful

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Connie Culp, who underwent the first face transplant surgery conducted in the United States, faced reporters and the world Tuesday, and offered thanks to the team of doctors and surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic who performed the near-total face transplant on December 10, 2008, and changed her life.

She also repeatedly thanked the donor family. “I guess I’m the one you came to see today,” the Ohio woman said at a news conference. “While I know you all want to focus on me, I think it’s more important that you focus on the donor family that made it so I could have this Christmas present, I guess I should say.”

In a 22-hour procedure, a team of doctors headed by Dr. Maria Siemionow transplanted 80 percent of Culp’s face -- essentially replacing her entire face, except for her upper eyelids, forehead, lower lip and chin.

The 46-year-old mother of two lost most of the midsection of her face to a gunshot in September 2004. Over the next four years, dozens of surgeries followed. While some of the damage was repaired, Culp remained disfigured and unable to eat or breathe on her own. The face transplant has changed that.

“We are actually overwhelmed by how great she’s doing functionally, Siemionow told CNN. Before the surgery, Culp could not eat solid foods and could not taste foods. “Connie can now enjoy her food,” said Siemionow. “She eats hamburgers and enjoys her pizzas, she’s drinking coffee from the cup.”

The surgery has also allowed Culp to more easily blend with society and she hopes that people will accept her and others who have suffered disfiguring injuries.

“When somebody has a disfigurement and don’t look as pretty as you do, don’t judge them, because you never know what happened to them,” Culp said at the news conference. “Don’t judge people who don’t look the same as you do. Because you never know: one day it might be all taken away.”

“As a physician, one of the most rewarding things we can do is to restore the quality of life to a patient,” Siemionow said in a prepared statement from the Cleveland Clinic. “Patients with facial disfigurement have very difficult challenges in society. We hope that one day we may be able to help the tens of thousands of patients who are quietly suffering.”