'New Chance at Life:’ Man Gets Face, Hands in Rare Operation

05 February 2021

A rare face and hands transplant changed Joe DiMeo's life six months ago. A transplant is a medical operation in which an organ or body part is removed from one person and attached to another person.

DiMeo is 22 years old and comes from the state of New Jersey. He had the operation last August. He received the new face and hands two years after being badly burned in a car crash.

Joe DiMeo stands for a photograph on January 25, 2021, at the NYU Langone Health of New York, six months after receiving an extremely rare face and hand transplant. (AP Images/Mark Lennihan).
Joe DiMeo stands for a photograph on January 25, 2021, at the NYU Langone Health of New York, six months after receiving an extremely rare face and hand transplant. (AP Images/Mark Lennihan).

Today, he is relearning how to do simple movements. He works on smiling and opening and closing his eyes. With his new hands, he is relearning actions like squeezing and pinching.

"I knew it would be baby steps all the way," 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 the operation appears to be a success. But they warn it will take some time to know for sure. Doctors at New York University's medical center NYU Langone Health performed the surgery.

Worldwide, surgeons have completed at least 18 face transplants and 35 hand transplants. Those numbers come from the United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees the U.S. transplant system. But it is extremely rare to get a face and double hand transplant at the same time. The operation had only been tried two times before.

The first attempt was in 2009 on a patient in Paris, France. That patient died one month later from problems related to the surgery. Two years later, doctors in Boston, Massachusetts, attempted the operation on a woman who had been attacked by a chimpanzee. Days later, doctors had to remove the hands.

Dr. Bohdan Pomahac is a surgeon at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. He led the second attempt. "The fact they could pull it off is phenomenal," he said of the doctors who operated on DiMeo.

DiMeo will have to take medications for the rest of his life to prevent his body from rejecting the transplants. He also will continue with treatment and exercises to help him gain sensation and movement in his new face and hands.

In 2018, DiMeo fell asleep while driving, he said, after working overnight as a product tester for a drug company. His car hit the edge of the street and then a structure. It rolled over and caught on fire. Another driver who saw the accident pulled over to rescue DiMeo from the burning car.

After the accident, doctors used drugs to keep him in a deep sleep called a coma. He had 20 surgeries and special operations on his skin to treat his extensive burns.

His doctors realized, however, that usual surgeries could not help DiMeo regain use of his face, eyes or hands. So, his medical team began preparing for the risky transplants in early 2019.

But almost immediately, the NYU team dealt with difficulties, including finding a donor. Doctors estimated DiMeo only had a six percent chance of finding a donor whose hands and face would work for his immune system. Doctors also wanted to find someone of the same sex and skin color.

During the search for a donor, the COVID-19 health crisis hit. Organ donations dropped sharply. During New York City's increase in virus cases, doctors in the transplant area in the hospital were asked to work with COVID-19 patients instead.

In early August, the team finally identified a donor in Delaware. The 23-hour operation happened a few days later.

Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez led the medical team of more than 140 people. He said that, so far, DiMeo has not shown any signs of rejecting his new face or hands.

Since leaving the hospital in November, DiMeo has been working with rehabilitation specialists to relearn many physical movements. "Rehab is pretty intense," DiMeo said. The work involves "retraining yourself to do stuff on your own again," he added.

DiMeo, who lives with his parents, can now dress and feed himself. He can take part in some sports. He can also play with his dog, Buster.

"You got a new chance at life," DiMeo said. "You really can't give up."

I'm Ashley Thompson.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

smile –v. to turn up the corners of your mouth in an expression of happiness or pleasure

motivation –n. the act or process of giving someone a reason to do something

surgery –n. a medical operation

phenomenal –adj. very good or great; impressive

rehabilitation –n. the process of bringing a person back to a healthy condition after an illness or health problem