What's It Like to Have a New Face? Transplant Recipients Tell Us.

Three people talk about learning to accept a face that will never work as well as their first one.

This story appears in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Katie Stubblefield has joined what Shaun Fiddler, the Cleveland Clinic’s second face transplant recipient, good-naturedly calls “an elite group.” They share a history of trauma, highs and lows, painful encounters in public, and acceptance of a face that will never look as good or work as well as their first one. Three people with new faces talk about those challenges.

Connie Culp

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In December 2008 Culp became the first face transplant recipient in the United States and the fourth in the world. She was 41 when her husband shot her, in 2004. She lost her nose, cheeks, the roof of her mouth, and an eye. Only her upper eyelids, forhead, lower lip, and chin remained. She got a new face at the Cleveland Clinic after having 30 reconstructive surgeries.
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What was life like for you before surgery? I didn’t have a nose, so they made a prosthetic nose for me, and I had to glue it on. It’s a funny story because once when I was in a restaurant, I had all the glue disappear, from the heat of my coffee, so it’s sort of hanging, and I got so mad. I was with my twin sister. I ripped it off my face, and I forgot that the waitress saw me with a nose and then when she came back, I didn’t have a nose. And oh my God, you should’ve seen how white she turned. I mean, it was funny.

What made you take the risks that come with a transplant? I really didn’t think I had a choice, because I couldn’t eat. I had to eat everything with a straw. My older sister was really down on me. She said, “You could die. You could get cancer.” I said, “I don’t care at this point.”

How do you feel now? I still have some pain, but I feel good. I never dreamed I’d live as good as I do, because I was in really bad shape. I didn’t have a nose or anything. I just had to hide my face a lot.

What does a face mean to you? Since I was shot, I can’t really see. So the main thing for me is being able to talk, being able to chew my food without help, and just to smile if I’m happy. I was told that you can make anybody smile if you smile at them first, you know?

Shaun Fiddler

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In 2011, when he was 43, Fiddler crashed his truck into a tree, breaking many bones in his face. Following surgery, he developed a condition that ate away at his tissue, destroying much of his face and his right eye. After he went to the Cleveland Clinic, doctors in November 2014 replaced about 70 percent of his face. He still awaits surgery that might improve the vision in his left eye.

You didn’t have any choice but to have a face transplant, did you? Well, when it came down to it—blind and no face or a chance at vision and a face—do the math. If I wanted any quality of life, to have a chance to save the sight in my left eye, to see my grandchildren’s faces and watch them open presents, I had to do this.

How do you feel about the way it turned out? It’s all right. At least I’m living. I saved my eye by getting a transplant, because my other face was rotting off of me. The plastic surgeons got a hold of me and basically kept me from dying. So, got to be somewhat grateful for that.

Are there things you really miss doing? Yeah. I can’t ride my Harley. That’s killing me!

What would you tell people who are thinking about having a face transplant? It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be scary as hell. But you got the best of the best working on you: technology and the things they can do.

How did you deal with the fear? You live through it, you’re going to be able to hug your loved ones, you’re going to be able to hold your grandbabies, and what you give up is nothing compared to what you gain, when it comes right down to it. The rubber meets the road; you’re still sucking air. Love every minute of it.

That was a good closing statement. Biker philosopher, I guess.

Richard Norris

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While mishandling a shotgun, Norris says, he accidentally shot himself in 1997. He was 22. In a 36-hour operation in 2012, a team led by Eduardo Rodriguez at the University of Maryland Medical Center gave him a nose, lips, a tongue, teeth, and jaws. Norris continues to be seen by Rodriguez, who now directs NYU Langone Health's Face Transplant Program. Norris has since moved to the New Orleans area to be close to his girlfriend. They met when she wrote to him on Facebook after seeing him on television.
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What was it like to live with a disfigured face? It was a tough time, really tough. You go out in public, and people are staring. They say really cruel things, stuff that really hurts you. It got to a point where I’d only go out at nighttime and only go to places where I knew the person who worked there, so I wouldn’t get harassed.

Why did you decide to have a transplant? The face transplant is not a first option. It’s not a second option. It’s the very last option. After years of surgeries, my doctor approached me about the possibility of a face transplant. I went home and spoke to my family. It really wasn’t a discussion of “What do you all think?” It was a discussion of “I’m going to do this.”

What do you know about your donor? He’s a great guy. He really was. He wanted to become a police officer. He had a tragic accident. Now I’m friends with his sisters. I’m friends with his mom and dad, and I stay in contact with them. Absolutely lovely people. Greatest people in the world. People say to me, “You know you’re a hero, taking the risk you did.” I’m not the hero. They are.

When you look in the mirror, what do you think and who do you see? I see myself, but I’m also reminded that I’m not there. So every day I look at the mirror, I do see myself. I don’t have an identity crisis like some psychologists think that you might have. I don’t have that problem. But it’s also a daily reminder of the sacrifices the family of a young man gave just so I could have a life again.

Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.