Posted on 1 October 2020
On December 9 2008, 45-year-old Connie Culp became the first person in the United States, and only the fourth in the world, to receive a face transplant. Connie’s transplant took a team at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio more than 22 hours to perform and allowed her to eat solid food again, to smell, and to breathe independently. Four years earlier, Connie had been shot in the face by her husband, who was subsequently imprisoned for seven years for aggravated attempted murder. Sadly, Connie died on July 29 2020, of an as yet unspecified infection.
Face transplants are still an experimental form of transplantation. They involve the transfer of skin, fat, muscle, nerves, bone, tongue, teeth and scalp from a dead donor to repair severely damaged features of a recipient. The primary aim is to help a person to eat, speak, blink and make facial expressions, but they are also expected to improve self-esteem and social relationships.
Connie supported potential patients and their families going through the radical surgery that she underwent, with all its physical and psychological effects. She became a public figure, appearing on Oprah and talking openly about domestic violence and facial difference. Her work highlighted the need for compassion and empathy in thinking about facial difference. “You never know what might happen to you”, she said in a CNN interview. Not all face transplant recipients are comfortable with a high level of media scrutiny, though many receive it.
Surgical teams around the world are beginning to assess the quality of life outcomes of face transplants, but progress is slow. International comparisons are difficult to make, even in physical terms. Nine face transplant patients have died, and two faces have been rejected, but there are few examples of long term, holistic follow-up. Given Connie’s work in raising public awareness of the impact of living with facial difference, there will be no more appropriate legacy than a better understanding of the benefits and limitations of face transplants.
AboutFace is led by CGHH co-Director Fay Bound Alberti and is funded by a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship. AboutFace explores the cultural and emotional history of face transplants and facial difference.