In July 2018, 20-year-old Joe Dimeo fell asleep at the wheel of his car on Route 22 in New Jersey. He lost control and the car hit a curb, flipped over, and caught fire. He was pulled out of the car in time, but suffered third-degree burns to nearly 80 percent of his body.
The damage was so severe that although Dimeo survived, he was left without his eyelids, ears, and most of his fingers. He also had severe scars on his face and neck that limited his range of motion. The scars even partially covered his eyes. On Wednesday, doctors at NYU Langone Medical Center performed the world’s first face and hand transplant. After 23 grueling hours of surgery, Dimeo, 22, was given a chance not only to survive, but also to be more free.
“He is the most determined patient I have ever met,” Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, the team leader who completed the unprecedented surgery, told reporters Wednesday. Although the procedure was performed last August, Dimeo’s doctors waited several months before his body began rejecting donor tissue.
There have only been two previous attempts around the world to complete such an operation — transplanting the patient’s face and hands — but both had previously been unsuccessful. “There have been more than a hundred successful hand transplants and about 50 face transplants. There was essentially no reason why they couldn’t happen together successfully. But we had to avoid contamination and get both procedures done as quickly as possible,” Dr. Rodriguez noted.
The surgery involved 80 people on six surgical teams and two adjacent operating rooms. In one, the hands and facial tissue of the dying donor were carefully removed and replaced with 3D-printed prostheses. In the other, Dimeo himself underwent surgery.