Today in History: World's First Successful Partial Face Transplant

Today in History: World's First Successful Partial Face Transplant

M.C. Millman

The world waited with bated breath on November 27, 2005, as the first successful partial face construction was performed in Amiens, France - a true medical breakthrough. 

After years of public speculation about when and where the first transplant would take place, 38-year-old Isabelle Dinoire made headlines worldwide. 

Dr. Bernard Devauchelle, Dr. Benoit Lengelé, and Dr. Jean-Michel Dubernard performed the surgery using donor tissue to reconstruct Dinoire's chin, lips, and nose. The team, comprised of 50 people, worked for 15 hours reconstructing Dinoire's face.

As the story goes, Dinoire, a divorced mother of two, had taken a large dose of sleeping pills to "forget" her troubles. According to BBC, she woke up in a pool of blood with her labrador at her side. It is assumed that the dog, Tania, found her owner unconscious and, out of desperation, gnawed at her face to rouse her. 

Dinoire recounts, "I couldn't even begin to imagine it was my face or my blood - or that the dog had chewed my face." The dog had to be put down, but Dinoire stated she had no hatred toward her dog, as she felt her dog was trying to save her.

Due to the extent of the injuries, doctors ruled out face reconstruction and proposed a face transplant instead. At the time, the surgery was highly controversial, with people questioning the ethics of such a risky experimental surgery. 

When Dinoire saw her face in the mirror for the first time, she knew it was a success. However, her initial enthusiasm dampened when she saw the worldwide attention the surgery brought her. 

BBC reports that Dinoire spent months hiding at home after the surgery. She didnt dare venture out, as she was harassed by curious passersby and pursued by the media, leaving her feeling like a circus animal. 

Dinoire spoke about that time with BBC, saying, "It was excruciating. I live in a small town, so everyone knew my story. It wasn't easy at the beginning. Children would laugh at me, and everyone would say, 'Look, it's her, it's her.'"

As time passed, Dinoire accepted what happened and got used to the stares and attention. She said, "If people stare at me insistently, I don't care anymore. I just stare back!" 

On April 22, 2016, Dinoire passed away at age 49 "following a long illness," according to a statement by Amiens Hospital, where the surgery was performed. The announcement of her death was delayed by months to protect her family's privacy. 

French media, Le Figaro, had more information about Dinoire's death, saying that she suffered another graft rejection the winter before her death, and lost some use of her lips. The site also wrote that "the heavy antirejection treatments that she had to take for life had favored the occurrence of two cancers."

However, Amiens hospital maintains that Dinoire succumbed to the "recurrence of a rare malignant tumor," which cannot be "scientifically linked" to her antirejection treatment.

Mayo Clinic's page on face transplants relays that since Dinoire's revolutionary surgery, over 40 transplants have been conducted worldwide, with several patients dying because of infection or rejection. Despite the vast innovation and developments in the medical world, face transplants are still considered incredibly challenging. 

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