First full-face transplant patient takes a bow

Anita Brooks
Tuesday 27 July 2010 00:00 BST

He can move his eyebrows and jaw. He can swallow pureed food. He can even, with much difficulty, speak.

The Spanish man who underwent the world's first complete face transplant appeared before the press in Barcelona yesterday to thank surgeons for his new features and a second chance to enjoy "the little things" in life.

The 31-year-old, identified only as Oscar, wore a light blue, button-down shirt and sat before a microphone at the Hospital Vall d'Hebron in Barcelona, where he underwent a 24-hour operation involving 30 specialists in March.

He spoke for a less than a minute, struggling to control his tongue, mouth and cheeks, before a woman identified as his sister interpreted his sentiments. "He feels very good with his face," she said. "He has some of his previous features. He recognises himself and he doesn't have a strange feeling."

Her brother was now looking forward to enjoying "the little things, like walking along the street without anybody looking at him or sitting at a table to eat with the rest of the family". And he was keen to return to his favourite hobbies, hunting and fishing, she said.

Dr Joan Pere Barret, chief of plastic and reparatory surgery at the hospital, praised his patient's mental and physical strength. "He is the best patient a doctor could have," he told reporters. "He believes it is his responsibility to thank the surgeons and the donors and to encourage other patients."

Before the surgery in March, Oscar – a farmer who shot himself accidently in the face five years ago – could not breathe, eat or speak on his own. He had undergone nine previous operations, and with each round of surgery it became increasingly clear that a complete transplant was his only option.

He then waited two years for a suitable donor, a deceased man near his own age. During the wait, therapists helped prepare him for the transformation the operation would bring. So far, Oscar is adjusting well. "Integration with his new image has been very easy, although there will always be an old Oscar and a new one," Dr Barret said.

During the surgery, doctors extracted tissue and bones from the donor's face and placed them in preservation liquid. They then transplanted lips, nose, teeth, jaw, cheekbones and tear ducts onto Oscar. His body rejected the new features twice, but doctors were able to successfully treat him. "It was a case of life or death," Dr Barret told reporters immediately after the procedure.

Oscar can now move his eyebrows, upper lids, jaw and parts of his cheeks. He has regained feeling in most of his face and hair has even started to grow.

"Does his face look like the donors' face?" said the surgeon. "We were afraid of that but it doesn't at all. The family believes that he looks quite like he did before."

Oscar has been able to speak for the past two months and can drink fluids and eat soft foods. He has not been released from hospital and allowed home. He is expected to recover up to 90 per cent of normal movement and sensitivity, but that will take between 12 and 18 months of rehabilitation, doctors said.

In July, a team of French surgeons performed a second complete face transplant on a 35-year-old patient, who suffered from a genetic disorder.

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