New Jersey man gets rare face and hands transplant after car crash

Complex transplant procedure has only ever been attempted twice before

<p>Joe DiMeo brushes back his hair while posing for a portrait, Monday, 25 January, 2021 at NYU Langone Health in New York</p>

Joe DiMeo brushes back his hair while posing for a portrait, Monday, 25 January, 2021 at NYU Langone Health in New York

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A 22-year-old man in New Jersey is recovering after receiving a rare face and hands transplant, relearning how to smile, blink, pinch and squeeze.

Joe DiMeo received the transplant almost six months ago after he was badly burned in a car crash two years prior.

“I knew it would be baby steps all the way,” Mr DiMeo told the Associated Press. “You’ve got to have a lot of motivation, a lot of patience. And you’ve got to stay strong through everything.”

Experts say it appears the surgery at NYU Langone Health was a success, but have warned that it will still take time to see how the transplant continues to respond.

At least 18 face transplants and 35 hand transplants have been completed by surgeons worldwide, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).

However, a simultaneous face and double hand transplant have only ever been tried twice before, with neither of the cases being a complete success.

“Within the world of transplantation, they’re probably the most unusual,” said Dr David Klassen, UNOS chief medical officer.

A patient involved in the first attempt at the face and double hands transplant in Paris in 2009 died about a month later from complications.

In 2011, Boston doctors attempted the transplant again on a woman who was mauled by a chimpanzee but ultimately had to remove the transplanted hands days later.

“The possibility of us being successful based on the track record looked slim,” said Dr Eduardo Rodriguez, who led the medical team of more than 140 people. “It’s not that someone has done this many times before and we have a kind of a schedule, a recipe to follow.”

Dr Eduardo Rodriguez has Joe DiMeo demonstrate the flexibility and strength in his hands

Mr DiMeo fell asleep at the wheel in 2018, after working a night shift, and his car crashed and burst into flames. A driver who witnessed the accident pulled over to rescue him.

He underwent 20 reconstructive surgeries and multiple skin grafts to treat his extensive third-degree burns but the surgeries could not help him regain full vision or use of his hands.

Deciding to attempt the risky transplant surgery, doctors estimated he only had a six per cent chance of finding a compatible match for Mr DeMeo’s immune system.

In early August, amid extra challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the team finally identified a donor in Delaware and completed the 23-hour procedure a few days later.

Joe DiMeo holds a tennis racket as he works in a physical therapy session

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

Following the procedure, Mr DeMeo can now shoot pool, play with his dog Buster, and work out at the gym.

“Rehab was pretty intense,” Mr DiMeo said, explaining it involved a lot of “retraining yourself to do stuff on your own again.”

He added: “You got a new chance at life. You really can’t give up."

Joe DiMeo stands with his parents Rose and John in the backyard of their home in Clark, New Jersey

Mr DiMeo will be on lifelong medications to avoid rejecting the transplants, as well as continued rehabilitation to gain sensation and function in his new face and hands.

So far, Mr DiMeo has not shown any signs of rejecting his new face or hands, said Dr Rodriguez, but the risk lasts indefinitely and the medications he takes also leave him vulnerable to infection.

“You’re never free from that risk,” Dr Klassen said. “Transplantation for any patient is a process that plays out over a long period of time.”

Reporting by the Associated Press

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