A 22-year-old man from New Jersey who suffered horrific injuries in a car accident has become the world’s first person to undergo a successful face and double hand transplant, his medical team announced Wednesday.
Joe DiMeo sustained third-degree burns on over 80 percent 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.
Though he was pulled to safety by a passerby, his injuries included amputated fingertips, severe facial scarring, and the loss of his lips and eyelids — affecting his vision and ability to lead a normal, independent life.
He remained in a hospital burn unit for four months, where he received numerous grafts and life-saving blood transfusions, and was placed in a medically induced coma for nearly two and a half months.
But DiMeo said he now had a “second chance at life” and offered a message of hope.
“There’s always light at the end of the tunnel, never give up,” DiMeo said at a press conference organized by NYU Langone Health, which carried out the pioneering procedure that made use of 3D printed cutting-guides.
The surgery was carried out on August 12 of 2020 and lasted approximately 23 hours.
It involved a team of 96 health care personnel, led by surgeon Eduardo Rodriguez, director of the Face Transplant Program at NYU Langone.
“All of us unanimously agree that Joe is the perfect patient,” said Rodriguez. “He’s the most highly motivated patient that I’ve ever met.”
It was the fourth face transplant carried out by Rodriguez, and the first hand transplant carried out under his direction.
Two other simultaneous face and hand transplants are known to have been attempted, but both failed. One of the patients died from infection-related complications, while the other required removal of the hands after they failed to thrive.
Finding a donor required a nationwide search akin to “finding a needle in a haystack,” said Rodriguez.
This was because a test known as a panel reactive antibody revealed he would reject 94 percent of donors, leaving just a six percent chance of a compatible donor.
An exact match was eventually found from the state of Delaware thanks to the Gift of Life Donor Program.
The transplants involved both hands to the mid-forearm, including the radius and ulna bones, three dominant nerves to the hand, six blood vessels requiring vascular connections, and 21 tendons.
The donor’s full face was also transplanted, including the forehead, eyebrows, both ears, nose, eyelids, lips, and underlying skull, cheek, nasal, and chin bone segments.
The risky procedure, which could have failed and left DiMeo worse off than before, or even killed him, was a success.
“The fine motor skills continued to improve,” said Rodriguez. “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 where he thanked his medical team, family and the “sacrifice” and “selflessness” of his unnamed deceased donor.
He compared learning to use his new hands to a baby gripping things for the first time.
“The hardest part is knowing that I can do it, but my hands aren’t there yet. I’ve got to keep practicing.”
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