Harvard Hospital Transplants Human Face

Surgeons at Brigham and Women’s Hospital successfully performed the first full face transplant in the United States last week, the hospital announced yesterday.

In the 15-hour surgery, surgeons attached a donor’s face, replacing tissue from “hairline to Adam’s apple,” according to lead surgeon Bohdan Pomahac, an assistant professor of surgery at the Brigham. The surgery was the second face transplant procedure at the Brigham—the first was a partial face transplant in 2009—and the second full face transplant in the world.

The patient, 25-year-old Dallas Weins of Fort Worth, Texas, suffered severe burns in an electrical accident in November 2008 that left him without a nose, lips, eyes, or eyebrows. Prior to last week’s procedure, Wiens had undergone 22 surgeries to repair damage to his face.

Pomahac said that Wiens has been stable since the procedure and does not need to be in an intensive care unit. He added that Wiens’ new face is paralyzed “like a stroke patient’s,” and that it will take about three months for him to be able to move and feel it. Wiens is expected to make a full recovery.

Weins’ new face is not expected to fully resemble “either what he used to be or the donor,” Pomahac told the Associated Press.

“Overall, [the surgery] was a resounding success,” he said.

Pomahac stressed the complexity of the procedure, which he described as unique.

Unlike the transplantations of a kidney—which only requires the correct placement of a vein, an artery, and the ureter—face transplants also require the reconnection of the facial nerves.

“There were about a dozen structures that needed to be found and re-connected,” he said. “How do you find the nerves and re-connect them so that one day you can move the face and feel it?”

Wiens’ surgery was paid for by a $3.4 million grant from the Defense Department to fund transplant research.

According to Pomahac, two other patients are currently on the waiting list for face transplants at Brigham and Women’s. The AP reported that one of the patients is Charla Nash, who was disfigured by a chimpanzee in 2009.

Looking forward, Pomahac said his team is currently working on techniques for transplanting hands and lower extremities.

Brigham and Women’s Hospital was the site of the first successful human organ transplant—a kidney—in 1954.

-Staff writer Benjamin M. Scuderi can be reached at bscuderi@college.harvard.edu

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