"The face lies on a surgical tray, eyes empty and unseeing, mouth agape, as if exclaiming, 'Oh!'" It's a line from Joanna Connors' National Geographic September cover story, which follows 21-year-old Katie Stubblefield as she becomes the youngest person on the planet to receive a face transplant. A photo within the article depicts those words exactly, giving credence to Connors' opening line: "This story is difficult to look at." But she asks the reader to continue with her on a deep dive that weaves together Stubblefield's journey with reflections on what our face says about who we are and background on how such a surgery is even possible. Stubblefield lost her face by her own hand: As an 18-year-old high school senior dealing with medical issues, her mother's job loss, and a breakup, she impulsively shot herself in the face with a .308-caliber hunting rifle in 2014.
Her brother kicked in the bathroom door and found a girl who Connors writes "could have walked off the cover of Seventeen magazine" now without her nose, mouth, and much of her jaws; her eyes remained but no longer aligned; she had suffered traumatic brain injury. Her life was saved in Memphis and she was transferred to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where 15 specialists "patched her face" (Connors explains how). Then, a new face was found: that of Adrea Schneider, who had died from a drug overdose. On the morning of May 4, 2017, Schneider's face was removed and transplanted onto Stubblefield in a 31-hour operation that involved a crucial decision mid-way through. Connors tracks the surgery in detail, as well as the months that followed. Read the full story, which is the product of years of reporting, and see many photos here. (Read more Longform stories.)