US face transplant recipient makes public appearance
Connie Culp has a message for anyone tempted to leap to judgment about someone who looks different to the norm. „Don’t judge people who don’t look the same as you do,” she says. „You never know what happened to them. You never know what might happen to you. One day it might be all taken away.”
That day came for Culp in September 2004. Her husband Thomas aimed a shotgun at her from eight feet and pulled the trigger. Then he turned the gun on himself.
Both survived. Thomas emerged with minor injuries and is now serving seven years in jail. For Connie, though, it was indeed all taken away.
The shotgun pellets blasted away the middle of her face, removing her nose, cheeks, roof of her mouth and destroying an eye. She lost the ability to breath through her mouth, to eat solid food, to feel a kiss. She was in constant pain.
But the hardest part was the rejection. She was called names. Children would run away from her. Once she was out shopping when she heard a young child say, „You said there were no real monsters, Mummy, and there’s one right there.”
Culp went up to mother and child and, pulling out her driving licence with a photograph of her as she looked before the incident, said: „I’m not a monster. I’m a person who was shot.”
Forty six-year-old Culp is a crusader against prejudice shown towards those who have had it all taken away. She is also affirmation that sometimes it can be given back.
This week she unveiled her new face having undergone the most comprehensive facial transplant ever undertaken. About 80% of her face was replaced last December. Eight surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio worked for 22 hours, applying the bones, muscles, nerves and skin of a donor who had died shortly before like a mask over the patient’s gaping hole.
As they removed the clamps from the newly-joined blood vessels, the team of surgeons, fearing that Culp’s own vessels might be too damaged to function properly, held their breath. Dr Frank Papay, one of the eight, recalled: „It was a cadaver face, it was pale and white. We released the clamps, it turned rosy pink.” Relief swept through the operation room.
„I got me my nose!” was how Culp summed up the outcome.
The procedure was the world’s fourth facial transplant since surgical history was made in 2005 in the case of Isabelle Dinoire, a French woman who received the first transplant having been mauled by a dog. In those early days, debate raged over the ethics of giving a person a new face.
Andrew Hart, a plastic surgeon at Glasgow Royal Infirmary who is deputy editor of the international Journal of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery, said that since then the procedure had become more widely, though not as yet universally, accepted.
Ethical questions remained, particularly whether it was right to offer a transplant when the patient was not in a life-threatening situation.
Such transplants carry serious risks, as the need to suppress the immune system to avoid rejection of the new skin can leave patients vulnerable to infection and cancer.
Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic stressed that in Culp’s case the decision to go ahead had nothing to do with cosmetic considerations. As many as 30 previous operations had left her with severely impaired functions, which have now been restored.
Five months on from the transplant, she is eating and enjoying the taste of pizzas and hamburgers again, she drinks from a cup, breathes for herself, has regained the sense of smell. Her chronic pain has been reduced.
Over the next 18 months, the surgeons will begin to remove the excess facial skin that they applied in case some was rejected. That will tighten and round out the current squareness of her features. In time, nerves should regenerate and muscles build, giving her greater subtlety of movement and improving her slightly lisped speech.
Already though, she has reacquired the power of facial touch. She told staff at the clinic that she will always remember feeling for the first time her grandson’s kiss.
The lead surgeon, Dr Maria Siemionow, praised the patient as „brave, devoted, consistent and very committed to her recovery”.
For Culp, though, the true hero of the hour is not her. „I know y’all want to focus on me,” she told a crowd of journalists at the press conference at which her identity was revealed. „But I think it’s more important to focus on the donor’s family that made it so I could have this Christmas present.”
The family remains anonymous. They let it be known that they had been moved to see pictures of Connie Culp in her new appearance.