Why we’re talking about . . .

How doctors pulled off the world’s first double hand and face transplant

More than 140 experts perform historic 23-hour surgery on US burn victim

A man in the US is learning to smile, blink and touch again after surgeons in New York completed the world’s first successful face and double hand transplant.

Joe DiMeo, from New Jersey, underwent the surgery in August after suffering third-degree burns over 80% of his body in a car accident in July 2018. 

DiMeo’s car exploded after it hit the curb and flipped over when he fell asleep at the wheel while commuting home from work on a night shift. He was saved after a passing stranger, R&B singer Ted Wizard Mills, pulled him halfway out of his car.

He was hospitalised for more than four months in the burns unit of a New Jersey hospital, during which he spent more than two months in a medically induced coma. Though DiMeo survived the ordeal, “he was left without eyelids, ears and much of his fingers” CNN reports, as well as “severe scarring on his face and neck that limited his range of motion [and] even partially covered his eyes”. 

The search for a donor was “scuppered by the Covid-19 pandemic”, Sky News says, but the 23-hour surgery was completed after one was identified in Delaware”.

More than 140 healthcare professionals worked on the procedure, during which “doctors amputated both of DiMeo’s hands, replacing them mid-forearm and connecting nerves, blood vessels and 21 tendons with hair-thin stitches”, the broadcaster adds. His new face, including the forehead, eyebrows, ears, nose, eyelids, lips, skull line, cheek, nasal and chin bone were also transplanted.

DiMeo told People Magazine that since his surgery “every week gets better”, adding that he is grateful to the donor and “hopes the family can take some comfort knowing that part of the donor lives on with me”. 

He is now able to feed himself, shower, wash his hands and play pool - all things he couldn’t do before his transplant surgery. “He has already started swinging a golf club and hopes to practice with his father when the weather is better,” Sky News adds.

There have previously been around 50 face transplants and about 100 hand transplants performed worldwide, but the surgeries had never successfully been carried out at the same time until now. Two previous attempts have been made at the complex procedure, but one patient died within months of the operation, while the second ultimately had to have the transplanted hands removed days later.

Dr Bohdan Pomahac, a surgeon at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital who led the second effort, said: “The fact they could pull it off is phenomenal. I know first hand it’s incredibly complicated. It’s a tremendous success.”

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