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New Jersey man gets world's first face and hands transplant, a second chance at life

The 22-year-old underwent 23 hours of surgery with more than 140 personnel being involved in his surgery.

New Jersey man gets world's first face and hands transplant, a second chance at life
YouTube/NYU Langone Health

Joe DiMeo, 22, made history as he became the recipient of the world's first successful face and hands transplant. DiMeo suffered severe scarring on his face and suffered third-degree burns in close to 80% of his body when he had a car accident in July 2018, reported CNN. The 22-year-old underwent 23 hours of surgery at the personal risk of losing his life. There have been two previous attempts to complete a surgery that involved transplanting a patient's face and both hands worldwide but they were both unsuccessful. The operation was carried out last August and has been deemed a success by doctors at NYU Langone Medical Center after observing that none of the transplants were rejected.


DiMeo's life trajectory altered significantly when he fell asleep while driving leading to an accident in New Jersey, in July 2018. The then-20-year-old lost control of the car and hit the curb, causing the car to topple and bursting into flames. Luckily for DiMeo, a passerby pulled him out of the car just before it exploded but by then he had suffered third-degree burns in more than 80% of his body. Diemo survived the accident but had lost his ears, eyelids, and much of his fingers. The scars on his face covered part of his eyes. Now, thanks to the successful transplant, the 22-year-old is slowly regaining back his old life. 


"He's the most highly motivated patient I've ever met," said Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, head of the team that conducted the surgery. Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez said the procedure was a huge challenge to everyone involved. "There have been over a hundred hand transplants performed successfully, and close to 50 face transplants," said Rodriguez. "So fundamentally there was no reason why they couldn't occur together, successfully. The team that operated on Joe DiMeo involved 80 people across six surgical teams and two adjoining operating rooms. "We needed to avoid infection, we needed to have this operation occur as fast as possible, we had to be very selective with the donor, and we had to implement every state of the art technology that would ensure the complete success of Joe's operation, and that's exactly what we did."


Rodriguez added that Joe's healthy lifestyle and motivation were crucial factors to the success of the operation. "Joe is healthy, he's young, he's strong, he loves to exercise, he eats healthy, and he had that one special element which is going to be required for this operation," said Rodriguez, "A high level of motivation. And he had a tremendous sense of hope."


The hands and facial tissue came from a dying donor and were carefully removed and replaced with 3D printed prosthetics. In the adjacent room, doctors were making precise cuts to remove DiMeo's own hands and face so they could prepare him to receive the donor tissue. "We have to replace 21 tendons, three major nerves, five major vessels, two major bones," said Rodriguez, referring to the work on Dimeo's hands. Rodriguez thanked the donor's family. "We always begin the operation with a moment of silence to honor the donor family, to respect their great loss, to never forget the donations that have been made," Rodriguez said. "In all these operations it's important to recognize that someone must give up their life so that others can continue living."


Following the surgery, DiMeo spent 45 days in the ICU, followed by nearly two months of inpatient rehab. During this time, DiMeo has learned to open his new eyelids, move his new hands, and smile. The 22-year-old believes he's had a second chance at life. "There's no excuse to not be motivated, or not to do my therapy," said DiMeo. He thanked his donor for their selflessness and sacrifice.

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