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Full face transplant recipient given self-described ‘miracle’

BOSTON (BP)–A burn victim whose face was badly marred in an accident suffered while painting a Baptist church in Texas has become the first person in the United States to undergo a full face transplant.

The trailblazing surgery on 25-year-old Dallas Wiens was completed sometime last week, physicians at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital announced March 21. For privacy reasons, the hospital did not say which day the surgery occurred. It required a deceased donor, whose identity and date of death were not disclosed, and included a team of more than 30 physicians and nurses led by Bohdan Pomahoc, plastic surgeon and director of the hospital’s burn center.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Pomahoc praised Wiens “for his courage and strength” while calling the donor’s gift “the most selfless gift one human can give another.”

Pomahoc also thanked the New England Organ Bank, the Department of Defense, whose research grant helped fund the surgery, and the surgical team who worked more than 15 hours to transplant the nose, lips, facial skin, “muscles of facial animation and the nerves that power them and provide sensation,” a hospital news release stated.

The Defense Department hopes funding will lead to breakthroughs in facial reconstruction for wounded war veterans. Similar transplants have been done in the U.S. involving parts of the face, but this was the first transplant of the entire facial region, doctors said.

Wiens’ grandfather, Del Peterson of Fort Worth, told reporters he thanked God “for walking with us through this amazing journey.” Peterson told Pomahoc that he “inspired confidence” in his grandson the first time they met him and that Wiens, when he is able, plans to be an advocate for facial transplant surgery.

In November 2008, Wiens suffered life-threatening burns when he came in contact with a high-voltage wire while painting his church, Ridglea Baptist in Fort Worth. Through hours of painstaking surgery, physicians at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital were able to save Wiens’ life, but severe facial disfiguration and blindness resulted from the accident.

Early on, Peterson said, Wiens decided “he could choose to get bitter or he could choose to get better. Thank God, today he is better.”

Pomahoc said Wiens is “meeting all the milestones” so far, even speaking with close family and friends on the phone. On Monday morning he had yet to eat, “but that will be soon,” the surgeon said.

Reflecting on the surgery, “I was very pleased with what we were able to do,” Pomahoc told reporters. Asked what Wiens’ appearance would be like when his face is healed, Pomahoc said he would look neither like his old self nor the donor, but “probably somewhere in the middle.”

Doctors used the donor’s skin and some nasal bone to provide some added structure to Wien’s new face, which will provide most of the sensation lost in the accident and functionality of the mouth and nose. Attempts to restore sight to Wiens’ one remaining eye failed last year.

Pomahoc told reporters the surgery is not merely cosmetic and functional but also involves some ethical considerations. For example, he told of a former patient who underwent multiple grueling procedures to improve his physical appearance. Asked by the hospital staff why he continued to seek treatment with so little promise of significant improvement, the patient said, “I just want a cab to stop when I’m at the curb.”

Two other people are on a waiting list for similar surgeries, Pomahoc said.

Wiens will spend several months in Boston recovering from the surgery before returning to Texas for more care and recovery, physicians said. He will be taking a low dose of anti-rejection drugs for the next year, Pomahoc said.

Wiens spoke to the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention’s Empower Evangelism Conference on Feb. 28.

“They say I’m tenacious but we know differently,” he said. “On the very first line of my medical record it says, ‘This young man is a miracle of God.’ Even they cannot deny that it was God who saved my life…. The doctors that I had — God put their skill to work in the right place and at the right time to keep me alive.”

The accident, Wiens said, put him in a position to hear from God after running from Him since his teenage years.

Wiens’ grandmother, Sue Peterson, wrote in an email March 22 to friends and family, “We are thankful that we serve an awesome God and that He indeed has all the details under control.”

She added, “We continue to lift the donor’s family in prayer for comfort and for peace. Through their loss, Dallas has been given a gift. We are grateful.”
Jerry Pierce is managing editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. An earlier TEXAN article chronicling Wiens’ injury and recovery can be accessed at http://texanonline.net/default.asp?action=article&aid=7069.

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  • Jerry Pierce