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Docs 'totally stupefied' by success of face transplant

Published December 3, 2005 1:34 am

Too early to say: But it will be another six months before the patient's nerves begin to regenerate
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

LYON, France - Before her operation, she couldn't chew her food. She had trouble speaking. Whenever she took a drink, most of the liquid dribbled from her mouth. Worst of all, her face was hideous. She wore a surgical mask every time she left her house.

Six days ago, she got a new face.

The results of the daring nose, lips and chin transplant - the first ever attempted - were beyond what the surgeons had hoped for. The new face bore an uncanny resemblance to the woman's former face. ''Marvelous,'' one doctor said.

The physicians described the operation in a news conference Friday. Their patient, a 38-year-old divorced mother, who doesn't want her identity known, had been mauled in June by her dog. The Labrador retriever mix, adopted from a rescue shelter, had ripped off the lower half of her face.

Her first look at the transplant came when a psychiatrist gave her a mirror. Unable to speak because of the breathing tube in her throat, the patient wrote a note, ''Merci.'' Thank you. Then she cried and so did one of her surgeons.

Conventional reconstructive surgery may have been an option, but it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to restore not only her appearance, but also basic functions, her doctors said.

Bernard Devauchelle said his team of surgeons was ''totally stupefied'' by how perfectly the transplant was integrated into her face in terms of the color and the thickness of the skin.

The woman already has some mobility in the new tissue. She can eat, drink and speak clearly, Devauchelle said. But it will be another six months before the nerves start to regenerate. It's too early to tell how natural the transplant will look, but the doctors said they were optimistic.

The biggest hurdle now is the body's acceptance of the transplant. The woman must take drugs for the rest of her life to prevent her immune system from rejecting the tissue.

It's still possible that the surgery will fail, that the new tissue on her face might die and turn black, even months later. In that case, reconstructive surgery or a new transplant would be needed.

In an effort to keep her body from rejecting the new tissue, the doctors infused the woman with stem cells taken from the bone marrow of the donor.






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