The Youngest Face Transplant: Love Trumps All
Katie Stubblefield was 18 when she used her brother’s gun to end her life. A failed relationship along with health problems were too overwhelming for her to bear. But Katie survived, barely. She had literally shot her face off, and doctors worried that she might not live. A veteran trauma surgeon recalls that it was the worst injury he had ever seen.
Katie has no memory of the day she lost her face, nor much of the following year, spent in three different hospitals. She and her family were surprised to hear that she was a good candidate for a facial transplant. Three years later, a suitable donor was found, a young woman who had died from a drug overdose.
Katie's procedure involved transplanting the scalp, forehead, upper and lower eyelids, eye sockets, nose, upper cheeks, upper jaw and half of lower jaw, upper teeth, lower teeth, partial facial nerves, muscles and skin -- effectively replacing her full facial tissue, according to Cleveland Clinic.
Katie is one of only 40 people in the world to receive a face transplant, and possibly the youngest. The 31-hour surgery involved 11 surgeons, several other specialists and the use of virtual reality.
With the transplant complete, Katie would still require additional operations and months of rehabilitation. Back at home with her parents, Katie continues physical and occupational therapy, works with a speech therapist and studies Braille. Her speech is difficult to understand but may improve with time.
Here's the thing: Katie has plans for the future. She hopes to attend college online soon, and to pursue a career in counseling or nursing. She hopes to raise awareness about suicide and suicide prevention. Crediting her family and her faith for giving her strength, she is grateful for a second chance.
"Life is precious and life is beautiful," Katie says.
Reading about Katie, I am first struck by her courage. Aren't you? Most of us worry and complain about things that are pretty insignificant in the scheme of things. Specifically, most of us complain about our physical imperfections, and we're grateful to get a selfie that shows off our best features. Your face is everything, you think. It's your mechanism to interact with the world, to charm your way into a job or a date or new followers on Instagram.
Imagine losing that face. Imagine yourself without it. Who would you be? What would be left? What qualities could you draw upon to navigate the world? What else makes you who you are?
This is not the first time I've been moved to ponder these questions. But Katie's youth and the circumstances of her disfigurement seem uniquely powerful, both as tragedy and inspiration. Her story is also about family and unconditional love. Kids have no idea of what they mean to their parents. Parents forget that every moment with their children is a gift.
Katie wants others to know that a single bad decision can be disastrous. Her advice for people considering suicide is this: Whatever you've got going on in your life, it's only temporary. She urges young people to open up to their parents, about anything. I would add that if you can't talk to your parents, call or text a hotline, confide in a trusted friend, do anything but sit alone with the feeling that life is hopeless.
Watching Katie speak, you see a compassionate, thoughtful young woman without a trace of self-pity. She wears hoop earrings and red nail polish; she clearly still wants to feel feminine and attractive. And that is great. After a few minutes, you grow accustomed to her face and sure enough, her courage and heart give her a grace that's hard to define.
Katie's self is not her face and neither is yours or mine. We can work on our inner resources as well as our selfie filters. That's what we'll need to rely upon, in the end.