A face transplant? Hear from the world’s first recipient
Remember when 1997’s Face/Off was considered a work of science fiction (in addition to being considered a badass action movie and arguably the best John Woo flick ever made)? Well, we’re there, guys. Face transplants are a thing now.
Meet Joe DiMeo, 22. He’s not an FBI agent trying to infiltrate his arch-enemy’s criminal gang, but his story is still pretty fascinating. Three years ago, DiMeo fell asleep at the wheel and was involved in a car accident that, by all counts, should’ve killed him. The car burst into flames, the whole shebang. DiMeo survived, but eighty percent of his body was covered in third-degree burns.
The story that follows doesn’t feature any stylized shootouts or Nicolas Cage monologues, but it made the coolest plot point of Face/Off a reality: Joe DiMeo underwent a successful face transplant.
In bad shape
To say that Joe DiMeo faced an uphill battle after surviving his car accident is a bit of an understatement. He required twenty reconstructive surgeries to deal with the widespread burns across his body. His fingers had to be amputated and facial scarring left him without lips or eyelids. You’re touching your own face right now, aren’t you?
The disastrous consequences of his car accident didn’t break Joe DiMeo’s spirit. Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez – one of NYU’s preeminent plastic surgeons – was in charge of DiMeo’s recovery, and he credits his patient’s inner strength for how it all turned out. Referring to DiMeo, Rodriguez told The New York Post: “He knew in his mind that this was not going to be the end of him.”
However, conventional medicine & surgeries could only do so much for Joe DiMeo’s injuries. In Rodriguez’s words, DiMeo was still just “a functional cripple” despite all the procedures he’d been through. It was time to take a chance on a less traditional approach. Rodriguez and the team at NYU’s Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery started a search for a face transplant match.
Finding a match for Joe DiMeo’s medical needs was quite the challenge. For one, it wasn’t just a face transplant – DiMeo also needed a donor with viable limbs, so his hands could be replaced as well. More importantly, the candidate’s blood panel couldn’t be rejected by DiMeo’s highly sensitized immune system. After all of DiMeo’s blood transfusions & skin grafts, the odds of finding a donor were down to only 6%.
On August 10th, 2020, Joe DiMeo’s prayers were answered. An anonymous donor arrived at NYU. A couple of days later, thanks to a revolutionary twenty-three-hour surgery, DiMeo had a new face & hands. And you’re probably wondering: “what about the donor?” Well, the donor had already passed away when they were deemed compatible. But that doesn’t mean the medical team didn’t take care of them.
Dr. Rodriguez and his team fitted Joe DiMeo’s donor with replica parts using a soft-silicone material that mimics human skin and three-dimensional photography & printing technology. Rodriguez assured The Post: “Despite the fact that they’re now declared deceased . . . we still respect the dignity of the donor. It’s important for us to continue to care for the donor because that patient is still our patient.”
Even though the face & hands transplant was a success, Joe DiMeo and his medical team waited until now to officially announce it. Similar transplants have proven to go awry down the line, but it seems DiMeo is finally in the clear. And he’s eager to share his story, as he told The Post: “I feel like it’s a big step in science. I’m pretty proud to be a part of it.”
Joe DiMeo’s recovery is an ongoing process. Over the past few months, he has slowly expanded the amount of “everyday stuff” he can do on his own. Now he can get dressed, take a shower, walk the dogs. His parents were pleasantly surprised to find him playing pool in the basement one day.
Still, the fact remains that Joe DiMeo now looks very different from his pre-accident self. How does that affect him? DiMeo gave The Post a very zen take on it: “I’m still the same guy, you know, before the surgery and after surgery. Even before the burns I was still the same guy. Just stages of my life. I just keep rolling with the punches and keep moving on. Nothing really holds me back.”