Patients often have cosmetic surgery treatments such as Botox or fillers for facial rejuvenation to eliminate or reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles on the face. They also have invasive surgical procedures like a facelift to tighten sagging skin and gain a more youthful and refreshed look to the face. One New Jersey man is enjoying a brand new look to his face because he actually has a brand new face after the world’s first face and double hand transplant.
Joseph DiMeo was 22-years-old when he fell asleep driving home from work in July 2018. His car hit a curb and a utility pole before flipping over and catching on fire. A person that witnessed the accident pulled the New Jersey resident from his car and saved his life. DiMeo had third-degree burns over 80% of his body and ended up losing his lips and eyelids as well as the use of his fingertips.
DiMeo not only survived this horrible accident but he also became the first person in the world to have a successful face and double hand transplant. The surgery was performed in August of last year and DiMeo is now beginning to lift weights and play with his dog. He is also looking forward to heading back to work in the future,
Earlier this week, DiMeo and Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, the lead face transplant surgeon and chair of the Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone Health, discussed this ground-breaking surgery with the public.
DiMeo commented that he wanted to “share my story to give people hope in the world. I’m grateful to have received a face and double hand transplant, which has given me a second chance at life.”
Following his accident, DiMeo was placed in a medically induced coma for more than two and a half months. In addition, he had to remain in the burn unit of a medical center in New Jersey for more than four months. As part of his recovery, he had almost 20 reconstructive surgeries and also had his fingertips amputated. His mom was his primary caretaker because doctors told him there was nothing else they could to improve his quality of life through conventional surgery. Eventually, he was referred to Dr. Rodriguez at NYU Langone which is one of the hospitals in the United States that has a dedicated face transplantation program.
Before taking DiMeo’s case, Dr. Rodriguez had performed three successful face transplants. However, there were no records of anyone performing a face transplant and a double hand transplant, at the same time, with any success. It had been tried in 2009 and 2011 but neither attempt was successful.
When asked what made DiMeo’s case different, Dr. Rodriguez said he was “the perfect patient” due to his severely limited level of functioning along with his age and the fact that he did not have any history of substance abuse or underlying conditions.
Once DiMeo was approved for the surgery in 2019, the next step was finding a donor even though the previous procedures he had already undergone only left him with a 6% chance of finding a perfect donor match. The search for a donor match was delayed a bit by the coronavirus pandemic but a donor was finally found in Delaware in August of 2020.
The surgery took two days and 23 hours to complete. There were six medical teams involved in the process as they operated at the same time in two rooms (one room for the donor and one for DiMeo). The surgical teams transplanted both hands to the mid-forearm area and this included blood vessels, nerves and 21 tendons. When it was time for the face transplant, the medical staff transplanted the eyebrows, forehead, nose, lips, both ears and the eyelids along with parts of the skull, nasal, cheek and chin bone.
According to Dr. Rodriguez, a face transplant is not as simple as just placing a face on a person like a mask. He told a TV reporter that “The face needs to fit like a puzzle – and that’s a tricky thing because we hit the point of no return.” Thanks to 3D printing technology, the medical team was able to restore the face and hand of the donor with replicas.
DiMeo spent 57 days in inpatient rehab before he was moved to outpatient care. He had to perform five hours a day of hand therapy along with physical, face and occupational therapy. In addition to his continuing rehab, DiMeo will also be required to take immunosuppressant medications for the rest of his life in order to keep his body from rejecting the transplants.
DiMeo told The Associated Press, “I knew it would be baby steps all the way. You’ve got to have a lot of motivation, a lot of patience. And you’ve got to stay strong through everything.”