Facing ahead: Transplant patient's progress 'astonishing,' Cleveland Clinic says

March 1, 2009

"Cleveland - The first American to receive a face transplant has gone home from the Cleveland Clinic, and doctors say her recovery has been "astonishing," according to published accounts. "

Key Points

Cleveland - The first American to receive a face transplant has gone home from the Cleveland Clinic, and doctors say her recovery has been "astonishing," according to published accounts.

A team of surgeons led by Maria Siemionow, M.D., Ph.D., the Cleveland Clinic's director of plastic surgery research and head of microsurgery training, performed the 22-hour operation, the first of its kind in the United States. The patient was released on Feb. 5.

To protect the recipient's identity, the clinic has released few personal details regarding the donor or recipient, except to say the latter is a female U.S. citizen who had suffered severe facial trauma years ago and had exhausted conventional reconstruction options.

At press time, the patient had shown no signs of tissue rejection and was doing well on standard immunosuppressive drugs, according to published news articles.

According to a Cleveland Plain Dealer account, the patient is taking three anti-rejection medications and antibiotics.

Functionally, the patient can now breathe normally - rather than through a hole in her trachea - and has regained her sense of smell, Dr. Siemionow told participants at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, held Feb. 12-16 in Chicago.

Additionally, she can drink from a cup and eat chicken, pizza and hamburgers, none of which she could do previously, according to the Associated Press.

More surprising to her doctors is that the patient can wink her eye, which they didn't believe would be possible, Dr. Siemionow tells the Associated Press.

Furthermore, Dr. Siemionow says, the patient can actually feel the new face, and does not feel the difference between her old face and her new face.

Visually, Dr. Siemionow says that because the patient received such a large transplant, the scars are hidden, and surgeons are pleased with the outcome.

At press time, the patient was returning to the Cleveland Clinic twice weekly for follow-up care. She will need restorative dental work, including a dental prosthesis to help fill the massive defect her original injury created, and to hold upper false teeth, according to the Associated Press report.

Future possibilities

Regarding the possibility of other face transplants at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Siemionow visited Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio late last year to consider potential candidates, according to published accounts.

The clinic was awarded a military grant to investigate the feasibility of such operations for combat veterans, including those injured in the Iraq war.