A 22-year-old man from New Jersey who suffered terrible injuries in a car accident has become the first person in the world to have a successful face and double hand transplant, his medical team announced on Wednesday.
Joe DiMeo sustained third-degree burns on more than 80 per cent of his body when he fell asleep while driving home from a night shift in July 2018, causing his car to flip over and then explode.
Although he was taken to safety by a passerby, his injuries included amputated fingertips, severe facial scarring, and the loss of his lips and eyelids, which affected his vision and his ability to lead a normal, independent life.
For four months, he stayed in a hospital burn unit, receiving multiple grafts and life-saving blood transfusions, and was put in a medically induced coma for almost two and a half months.
Yet DiMeo said he had a “second chance at life” right now and gave a message of hope.
“There’s always light at the end of the tunnel, never give up,” DiMeo said.
The surgery was carried out and lasted approximately 23 hours on 12 August 2020.
A team of 96 health care staff, led by surgeon Eduardo Rodriguez, director of NYU Langone’s Face Transplant Program, was involved.
“All of us unanimously agree that Joe is the perfect patient,” Rodriguez said. “He’s the most highly motivated patient that I’ve ever met.”
It was Rodriguez’s fourth face transplant, and the first-hand transplant under his leadership.
It is known that two other simultaneous face and hand transplants were attempted, but both failed. One of the patients died from infection-related complications, while the other after they failed to survive, required removal of their hands.
Finding a donor involved a nationwide search equivalent to “finding a needle in a haystack,” Rodriguez said.
This was because a test known as a panel reactive antibody showed that 94 per cent of donors would be rejected, leaving a compatible donor with only a six per cent chance.
Thanks to the Gift of Life Donor Network, an exact match from the state of Delaware was finally identified.
Both hands to the mid-forearm, including the radius and ulna bones, three dominant hand nerves, six blood vessels requiring vascular connections, and 21 tendons were involved in the transplants.
Including the forehead, eyebrows, both ears, nose, eyelids, lips, and underlying skull, cheek, nasal, and chin bone segments, the donor’s entire face was also transplanted.
Success was the risky operation, which would have failed and left DiMeo worse off than before, or even killed him.
‘Fine motor skills have continued to improve,’ Rodriguez said. “He wants to work on sports, he loves to play golf, and he wants to get back to the course. I’m always impressed by the amount of weight that he can lift and the quality of his grip strength.”
DiMeo read from a short statement in which he thanked his medical staff, family, and his anonymous deceased donor’s “sacrifice” and “selflessness”
For the first time, he likened how to use his new hands to baby gripping items.
“The hardest part is knowing that I can do it, but my hands aren’t there yet. I’ve got to keep practisi.”