Although much is made of the vanity aspect of plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures, it's important to remember than those enhancement techniques are an outgrowth of the evolution of reconstructive surgery. Three recent cases involving partial or full facial transplants vividly illustrate the highly-skilled and life-changing improvements surgeons are now capable of achieving for their patients.
In 2004, then 41-year-old Connie Culp suffered a catastrophic shotgun blast to the face. Her husband planned to murder Connie and then kill himself, but the attempt failed. In the attack, Connie's cheeks, nose, the roof of her mouth, and one eye were completely destroyed. After undergoing 30 surgeries, Connie became the first U.S. recipient of a partial face transplant in December 2008. The 22-hour surgery replaced 80 percent of Connie's face with that of a recently deceased donor. The procedure restored Connie's ability to breathe on her own and to eat solid food. She can speak, and has regained her sense of smell and taste. In a series of after-procedures, doctors have refined Connie's features, significantly enhancing her quality of life with each procedure. Her facial expressions have normalized and she has become a vocal advocate for the victims of domestic violence and facial disfigurement.
In March 2011, Dallas Wiens, 26, received the first full face transplant conducted in the U.S. to repair the critical burn damage he suffered from a high voltage wire in 2008. Left blind, with no lips, nose, or eyebrows, and paralysis of the remaining tissues down through his neck, doctors said Wiens would never be able to speak or to eat solid food. A team of 30 physicians that included eight surgeons performed the radical reconstructive surgery that required 15 hours. Although they could not restore Wiens sight, he can speak, and has regained his sense of smell. Like Culp, Wiens will require more surgery, and has, since the original injury, been operated on more than 24 times. In his first public appearance in May 2011, wearing dark sunglasses, he described the joy of feeling his own face again and of hearing his daughter's first words when she saw him after the procedure, "Daddy, you're so handsome."
In February 2009, a 200 lb. pet chimpanzee mauled Charla Nash, 57, ripping off her hands, nose, lips, and eyelids. Doctors were forced to remove her eyes as they labored to save her life. Nash lived in the hospital for two years, hiding her ravaged face behind a veil. In spring 2011, a 20-hour surgery, the third facial transplant in the U.S., attempted to replace both her face and hands. Sadly, her body rejected the hand transplant, but the results of the facial transplant have been nothing short of miraculous. As Nash has continued to recover, the tissue has molded to her bone structure, giving her an appearance reminiscent of her natural features before the attack. She can make expressions, including smiling. She can now eat solid food, has regained her sense of smell, and her speech is improving noticeably.
It is also important to remember that with each case of the dramatic proportions of Culp, Wiens and Nash, reconstructive surgeons further refine their techniques to help future patients resume their lives after instances of tragic disfigurement.