Joe DiMeo, of Clark, New Jersey, underwent the 23-hour surgery back on Wednesday, August 12.
DiMeo suffered third-degree burns over 80% of his body from a car accident in July 2018. He had fallen asleep at the wheel while heading home from his job at a lab.
Despite undergoing approximately 20 reconstructive surgeries, DiMeo had extensive injuries, including amputated fingertips, severe facial scarring, and no lips or eyelids, that affected his vision and daily activities, and severely limited his ability to live a functional and independent life.
A team of more than 140 health care professionals, including surgeons, nurses, and other staff, was led by Eduardo D. Rodriguez, MD, DDS, the Helen L. Kimmel Professor of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery and chair of the Hansjrg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone.
Dr. Rodriguez talks about the groundbreaking surgery on GMA
"Joe was an ideal candidate for this procedure; he's extremely motivated and dedicated to recovering the independence he lost after his accident," says Rodriguez. "Thanks to the institutional support we received here at NYU Langone and a world-class team committed to providing the best care for our patient, we've succeeded in a tremendous undertaking that shows we can continue to take on new challenges and advance the field of transplantation."
This is the fourth face transplant performed under the leadership of Rodriguez and the first hand transplant under his direction. While two other simultaneous face and hand transplant attempts are known to have been performed, in each case there was an adverse outcome: One patient ultimately died due to infectious complications, and another required removal of the hands after they failed to thrive.
"Fundamentally, I viewed this as the same type of surgical exercise as our previous successful face transplants," Rodriguez says. "I saw no reason why we couldn't achieve this outcome to help improve Joe's function and quality of life."
The surgeons had to race against time so they could limit the amount of time the donated tissue went without receiving a blood supply.
"We practiced the surgery nearly a dozen times over the course of a year, and in the ORs we had teams ensuring everyone followed the steps exactly so we didn't skip a beat or get out of sequence. Ultimately, it went better than I ever expected," says Rodriguez.
COVID had put a temporary hold on DiMeo's surgery as many members of the transplant team had to be reassigned to work in COVID units at the hospital.
DiMeo was listed for just 10 months on the donor registry before a donor was identified; his total time from injury to transplantation was two years.
His highly sensitized immune system as a result of the accident he suffered meant that there was just a 6% chance of finding a compatible donor.
An exact match for DeMeo was ultimately identified by Gift of Life, the regional organ donor program serving Southern New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
"Gift of Life Donor Program is proud to have collaborated with such a distinctive team of medical professionals on the first face and bilateral hand transplant in U.S. history. We congratulate our colleagues at NYU Langone Health on this pioneering medical milestone and are thrilled to hear that the patient is doing so well," says Richard D. Hasz, Jr., MFS, CPTC, vice president of clinical services, Gift of Life Donor Program. "This transplant was possible because a selfless family said yes to this unique donation. We salute the donor family's enduring generosity and pay tribute to the heroic donor. It was an honor to coordinate the donation on their behalf and to contribute our national leadership and expertise in organ procurement and the coordination of these rare and complex donations to help heal and transform a young man's life. Our thoughts are with the donor family and the recipient that they find the healing and hope donation makes possible."
Rodriguez has since performed several less extensive follow-up surgeries on DiMeo to optimize his functional and aesthetic outcomes.
"The rehabilitation demands on Joe are greater than any of our previous face transplant patients," says Rodriguez. "With the added element of his hand therapy, Joe has performed up to five hours of rehabilitation daily - and he is constantly pushing for more. He's completely focused on his goal of gaining greater independence and freedom."
DiMeo remains positive and focused on regaining the elements of life he lost after his 2018 accident. He's grateful for what his donor and the donor's family have done for him during their own time of great difficulty.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime gift, and I hope the family can take some comfort knowing that part of the donor lives on with me," says DiMeo. "My parents and I are very grateful that I've been given this second chance. We're also incredibly thankful to Dr. Rodriguez and the team of therapists, nurses, and surgeons who helped me get to where I am today."
For others who may be suffering from similar debilitating injuries, DiMeo encourages them to consider face or hand transplant: "If I can do it, so can you."
DiMeo is now able to dress, feed himself, throw a ball to his dog Buster, and he started resistance training with his new hands using light free weights and machines. He's even been able to start practicing his golf swing again.
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