At 18, Katie Stubblefield lost her face. At 21, she became the youngest person in the US to undergo surgery – still experimental. Get to know their amazing story.
This is a difficult story to contemplate. But believe me: it’s worth it. Our proposal is that you follow the incredible journey of a young woman who underwent a face transplant, because it reveals something profound about our humanity. The face reveals who we are, conveying a kaleidoscope of emotions. And it is a gateway to the world of sensations, allowing us to see, smell, taste, hear and feel the breeze. How far are we our face? At 18, Katie Stubblefield lost hers. Three years later, doctors gave him a new face. This is a story of trauma, identity, resilience, devotion – and amazing medical advances.
Her face is on a tray, her eyes vacant, not seeing anything, and her mouth slightly open, as if she is exclaiming “O!”
Sixteen hours ago, in Operating Room 19 of the Cleveland Clinic, surgeons had begun the delicate work of removing the face of a 31-year-old woman who, three days earlier, had been declared legally and clinically dead. And soon her face will be implanted in a 21-year-old girl, who has been waiting for such an opportunity for more than three years.
For an instant, the astonished countenance rests in its solitude. Surgeons, residents and nurses silently stare at him in awe as clinic staff, like gentle paparazzi, come in with cameras to capture the moment.
Deprived of blood, her face begins to pale. With every second that passes disconnected from the body, it acquires the appearance of a 19th-century death mask.
Frank Papay, an experienced plastic surgeon, carefully grips the tray in his gloved hands and walks to Operating Room 20, where Katie Stubblefield awaits. Katie is the youngest person to receive a face transplant in the United States.
Her transplant, the third performed at the clinic and the 40th in the world, will be one of the most comprehensive, which will make it a topic of great interest and study in the field of this still-experimental surgical procedure.
Looking at the face on the tray, Papay feels a kind of reverence. It’s an amazing thing, he thinks, what some people end up doing for others — giving them a heart or a liver and, in this case, even a face. He says a silent prayer of thanks and then lifts his face to his next existence.
After 16 hours on the operating table at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, surgeons complete the intricate task of removing the face of an organ donor. In awe of the scene, the transplant team is silent as clinic staff photograph the face. Another 15 hours would still be needed for surgeons to implant Katie Stubblefield’s face.
PHOTO BY LYNN JOHNSON
WE HUMAN BEINGS are part of a very exclusive group: that of animals that recognize themselves when they see their own faces in a mirror. Besides us, the great apes, the Asian elephants, the long-tailed birds and the bottlenose dolphins are the only other animals in which this ability to recognize has been proven. But only human beings are known to express disappointment when staring at their reflections.
As we look at our face for wrinkles and blemishes, we often miss this wonderful organ. It is the most striking part of the visible body, a mosaic of physical and psychic elements. Of Organs bodily organs, the face is among those that perform the most functions: it confers and confirms identity, expresses emotion, performs basic life-sustaining functions and allows us to experience the world through the senses.
The face is the external image we attribute to the internal feeling of a self, to who we are, and how we fit into the world. Faces root us in our culture. In some places, faces must remain veiled and hidden. In others, on the contrary, they are a focus of attention, and tattoos, piercings, marks are exposed. In the contemporary world, the face is often seen as a blank canvas, to be manipulated through plastic surgery or complex makeup techniques. If we allow it to age, the face tells our life story. It connects us not only with our ancestors’ past but also with our children’s future.
Since we were born, we are attracted to faces. Newborns turn to them as soon as they leave the uterus. Babies react and mimic our facial expressions as if they’ve been given a mission to do so. This detailed study of the face of others is the way in which we all set out on the task of understanding the curious business of being human. In evolutionary terms, it was the faces that enabled us to become social animals.
On the simplest plane of identity, the face works like the passport photo we present to the world. But it is also the way others seek to know us more deeply, in order to get a glimpse of who we are behind the photo. “Appearance is the most public part of the self. It is our sacrament, the visible self that, for the world, reflects the inner and invisible self”, wrote psychologist Nancy Etcoff, from the Harvard Medical School, in her book The Law of the Most Beautiful – The Science of Beauty.
Katie’s new-face sutured
In the ICU, a surgical resident carefully supports Katie’s head in order to keep it immobile after the 31-hour procedure is completed. In order to protect the eyes, the eyelids were sutured. After the transplant, Katie would still have to undergo additional corrective operations and many months of rehabilitation.
PHOTO BY LYNN JOHNSON
Go in front of the mirror. Think of all you can do with that face. You can kiss, bite an apple, sing, sigh. Smell the freshly cut grass. You can look at your baby and brush your cheek against his. In addition to showing our emotions, faces enhance our ability to communicate through spoken language. We articulate the most diverse expressions while talking, often without even realizing it.
Under this surprising face, we have 43 mimetic muscles to express emotions and articulate speech. We have four major muscles on each side of the face that move the jaws, as well as complex lingual muscles that aid in swallowing and speaking. The face is also made up of layers with blood vessels, sensory nerves and motor nerves, cartilage, bones and fat. Cranial nerves control motor muscles and transmit sensory information to the brain, allowing us to see, smell, taste, hear, and feel.