Cutting Edge Surgeries Saving Face in the 21st Century

In 1994, Sandeep Kaur’s face was torn off by a thrashing machine. The amazing thing is that it was put back on. She was the first of several patients around the world whose faces have been saved or replaced by surgery.

Sandeep was nine years old when she lost her face. Her parents rushed her to the hospital with her face, including much of her scalp, in a plastic bag. The attending surgeon didn’t think he could reattach it. He did. Sanddeep’s face was reattached, but she suffered muscle damage and scarring. Twelve years later, Sandeep was back at the medical institute that saved her face, in the final stages of training as a nurse.

Sandeep was the first of a series of facial surgeries that paved the way for full-face transplants.

In 1997, a 28-year-old Australian woman’s face and scalp were successfully reattached in a 25 hour operation after a farming accident. The young mother had lost all but her chin and one ear.

Fast forward to 2005. 38-year-old Isabelle Dinoire’s dog ripped her face to shreds. The French woman made medical history when her nose, cheeks, mouth, lips, and chin were replaced with donor tissue. During her recovery, she underwent intensive psychological counseling and physical rehabilitation.

2006 brought another transplant, this time in China. Li Guoxing was attacked by a bear. The bear removed most of the right side of Guoxing’s face including bone in his nose and cheek. A 15-hour surgery attached a nose, upper lip, cheek, and eyebrow from a cadaver donor.

The success of these partial transplants paved the way for the first full face transplant. In January 2007, French surgeons remove and replaced Pascal Coler’s tumor-ridden face.

Coler had suffered from the same disease that afflicted John Merrik and was made famous in the movie, Elephant Man. In the spring of 2008, Coler reported that the surgery had changed his life.

December 17, 2008 saw the first face transplant in the United States. The surgery was performed on a woman missing her upper jaw, one eye, and nose. She had exhausted all traditional surgery. Her stated hopes were to one day smell and smile.

While face replacement is controversial, aspiring to smell and smile seem modest goals.

See the video above for a glimpse into China’s efforts to improve life for those with facial disfiguration.