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He's the Only Person on Earth With Transplanted Face, Hands

Joe DiMeo had the surgery in August
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 3, 2021 11:27 AM CST

(Newser) – Almost six months after a rare face and hands transplant, Joe DiMeo is relearning how to smile, blink, pinch, and squeeze. The 22-year-old New Jersey resident had the operation last August, two years after being badly burned in a car crash. Experts say it appears the surgery at NYU Langone Health was a success, but they warn it'll take some time to say for sure. Worldwide, surgeons have completed at least 18 face transplants and 35 hand transplants, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, which oversees the US transplant system. But simultaneous face and double hand transplants are extremely rare and have only been tried twice before. More from the AP:

  • The first attempt was in 2009 on a patient in Paris who died about a month later from complications. Two years later, Boston doctors tried it again on a woman who was mauled by a chimpanzee, but they ultimately had to remove the transplanted hands days later. "The fact they could pull it off is phenomenal," said Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, the surgeon who led the second such attempt, of DiMeo's procedure.

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  • In 2018, DiMeo fell asleep at the wheel, he said, after working a night shift as a product tester for a drug company. The car hit a curb and utility pole, flipped over, and burst into flames. Another driver who saw the accident pulled over to rescue DiMeo. Afterward, he spent months in a medically induced coma and underwent 20 reconstructive surgeries and multiple skin grafts to treat his extensive third-degree burns.
  • Once it became clear conventional surgeries couldn't help him regain full vision or use of his hands, DiMeo's medical team began preparing for the risky transplant in early 2019. Almost immediately, the NYU team encountered challenges, including finding a donor.
  • Doctors estimated he had only a 6% chance of finding a match compatible with his immune system. They also wanted to find someone with the same gender, skin tone, and hand dominance. Then, during the search for a donor, the pandemic hit and organ donations plummeted.
  • In early August, the team finally identified a donor in Delaware and completed the 23-hour procedure a few days later. They amputated both of DiMeo's hands, replacing them mid-forearm and connecting nerves, blood vessels, and 21 tendons with hair-thin sutures. They also transplanted a full face, including the forehead, eyebrows, nose, eyelids, lips, both ears, and underlying facial bones.
  • "The possibility of us being successful based on the track record looked slim," said Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, who led the medical team of more than 140 people. So far, DiMeo has not shown any signs of rejecting his new face or hands, said Rodriguez.
  • As with any transplant, the danger of rejection is highest early on, but it lasts indefinitely. DiMeo will be on lifelong medications to avoid rejecting the transplants; those drugs leave him vulnerable to infections.
  • Since leaving the hospital in November, DiMeo has been in intensive rehabilitation, devoting hours daily to physical, occupational, and speech therapy. During a recent session, he practiced raising his eyebrows, opening and closing his eyes, puckering his mouth, giving a thumbs-up, and whistling.
  • DiMeo, who lives with his parents, can now dress and feed himself. He can feel his new forehead, his hands get cold, and he often reaches up to push his long hair off of his face. He shoots pool and plays with his dog, Buster. Once an avid gymgoer, DiMeo is also working out again—benching 50 pounds and practicing his golf swing.
(This article looks at the toll hand transplants can take.)

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