May 27, 2017

A New Face for a New Future

I recently read an astonishing news story about a surgical first in the U.S. It was datelined Boston.     

Dallas Wiens, 25, a construction worker in Texas had been given a new face at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.  Not a simple face lift, which is common now. He got a total face transplant.

The surgeons had removed the face of another person—dead, of course—and sewed it onto his face.  No word what the donor had died of or who he was.  The operation was done for the best of reasons.  To give him a new life.  A better future.

Now about this man in Texas, Dallas Wiens.  He was severely burned in a power line accident in 2008.  He lost his eyesight and his face was turned into a horrendous nightmare.  He looked so awful that it’s easy to think he might have thought of ending it all.

A plastic surgeon in Boston came to his rescue.  In fact, it took a whole team.  The operation lasted 15 hours and was enormously complex.  They gave him a new nose, new lips, new eyebrows, new cheeks, new skin. They had to make everything fit right.  And they had to connect all the muscles and nerves that make facial features move and that convey sensation.

The surgeon, Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, had had to wait until a face came along that would be a good match.  Finally he located one.  The tension of it all can last long after the operation.  The body can reject the transplanted pieces.

Nothing on our body identifies us as clearly as does our face, of course.  Many of us feel it important to change it, in little ways and big ones.  Often  for good reasons.  We get a new hairdo.  We dye our hair.  Get a wig or a toupe.  Grow a beard.  Change the color of our eyes through contacts.  Get tattoos.  Re-shape our eyebrows or shave them and paint on new ones.

Tan our cheeks under the sun or under a machine.  Or we lighten our skin a shade or two to pass more easily in our race-sensitive society.  We Botox our wrinkles away or have our nose straightened or our chin pushed in or pushed out..

Sometimes for nefarious reasons.  It may get done because somebody wants a new identity to escape the clutches of the law.  Some people have their finger tips changed, for instance.  Different tips mean different fingerprints.

It’s surprising how much surgery gets done to change how we look.  We make our breasts bigger or smaller.  Have body fat sucked off.  Convert our sexual parts to male or female.

We are familiar with many transplants.  I remember the first heart transplant—in South Africa.  Sorry, I don’t remember the name of the surgeon, or the patient, a man.  Surprised that I don’t remember.  That was front-page all over the world, of course, and that was only right.

Many other transplant surgeries were developed.  Some are routine now– lung transplants, kidney  transplants, other organ transplants, hair transplants, even hand transplants.  As we know, these parts are taken from one person and placed in another or moved from one of the body to another.  Skin and fat, for instance.

Sadly nothing could be done to restore Mr. Wiens’ eyesight.

It was just a year or two ago that I read of the world’s first face transplant.  What drama!  A new face was put on a woman in France whose face had been horribly damaged.  Of course that was headlined all over the world.  Apparently she has recovered and is enjoying her new face.  Let’s hope so.

These two face transplants were done to make these two people look better.  Be more comfortable in the presence of their loved ones and families and even strangers.  Make it possible to earn a living in plain view again—not having to find a job that keeps them out of sight.

Reading this story about Mr. Wiens, I immediately flashed back to a man who could use such an operation.  A woman, too.  Honest — if I had a face like those two poor souls, l’d high-tail it to Dr. Pomanac, too.

They had truly hideous faces.  The worst faces I have ever seen.  My sister Lucie felt the same way.  She was with me.

It was an evening six years ago in Shanghai.  We were there for the wedding of a Chinese friend, Wu.  The two of us were on a Metro train heading downtown.  The rush hour was over.  There were just a few passengers on board.  Lucie and I were sitting on a bench facing the center aisle, which ran through the car.

I heard the door on the left end of the car open and I looked up.  A woman was entering from the car behind ours.  I was shocked.  She had no nose.  Just a gaping hole where it was supposed to be.  No lips. Awful.  No eyebrows.  Yes, I was shocked.  So was Lucie.  It was terrible.  Impossible to describe how bad.

As she approached, she had a cup and held it out to this passenger and that one.  She was begging.

Right behind her came a man.  Just as hideous.  No nose.  No lips.  No eyebrows.  Hideous.  He was doing the same thing, begging.

They made their way so quickly that I had no time to react.  No opportunity to dig into my pocket for money if I wanted to.  Lucie reacted the same way.  We followed them with our eyes as they moved past us.  They had good-looking bodies.  Athletic and fit.  In their 30’s, it seemed.  Appeared to have no problem.  But very few people gave.  The two disappeared into the next car.  Must have been ready to cry with disappointment.

Right away Lucie and I turned to one another.  “What was that all about?!” I said.  She shook her head. “No idea. But how awful!”

My words shot out. “I never, never saw anybody like that before.”  The awe was all over her face.  “Me, either.  Two monsters.”

The next morning we kept our appointment with Wu.  He had come from his office to have lunch with us.  He is an engineer–the international marketing director of an  electronic products company.  He and I met seven years ago in Africa.  We’ve been friends ever since.

The minute I could, I brought up the two monsters.  Yes, monsters.  It’s the word that said it best.  I told him the story.  Lucie kept supplying awful details.

I said, “What was all that about, Wu?”

He had grown up in Shanghai.  If anybody knew, he would.  I was eager to hear it all.  Lucie was all ears.

He shook his head.  “I have heard of such people.  But I have never seen any.  There are not many.”

“Well, what do you think?”

“I have heard stories.”

“Please tell us!”

“There are parents who do this to their children.  When they are young.  They do it with acids.  Maybe with a knife.”

“How awful.  But why?”

“The parents need money.  They want their children to go out on the street and beg.  To become professional beggars.  People will  be horrified and will give.  Will be merciful.   But John,  you said not many gave.  Maybe it does not work.”

We were disappointed, of course.  What a story.  The parents.  The life of these children.  Their terrible life now approaching horrified people and begging.

I had it on mind all through lunch.  I’m sure that when he left, Wu passed on our story to everybody he ran across.  Such an awful story.  So incredible.

As I read Mr. Wiens’ story, I imagined what the last two years must have been for him, so disfigured.  And I imagined what these two poor folks working the Metro riders in Shanghai would go to to get a decent new face from a surgeon like Dr. Pomanac .

Can you imagine how good Dr.Pomahac and his team must feel to have accomplished a miracle like that?

Oh, one more thing. Dr.Pomahac said that Mr. Wiens would not look like he used to, and not like the unidentified donor.  He would look somewhere in between.

That’s appropriate.  His new face is giving him a new life.  A new future.  Wonderful.  Why shouldn’t he enter it happily and excitedly with a nice new—and different–face?

Maybe a clever surgeon will find a way to give him new eyesight.  Maybe by transplanting new eyes into him.  Don’t rule it out, as crazy as it sounds.

I hope so.

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