Face Transplant Patient # 24: Getting His Life Back

Seven months after his revolutionary face transplant, 37-year-old recluse is socially outgoing, moving forward with his life

Richard Norris, 37, is reclaiming his life after Maryland doctors gave him a face transplant. An accidental gunshot wound in 1997 tore off much of his face. He became a recluse until the life-transforming surgery, conducted in March, 2012. His recovery is ongoing.

Richard Norris, 37, spent 15 years hiding from society. An accidental gunshot wound in 1997 had ripped away much of his face in an instant. Doctors tried to repair the damage, but their reconstruction efforts, time and again, failed.  

On the rare occasions when Norris would venture out, he'd wear a surgical mask and a cap so no one would stare. He did his shopping late at night, when he knew there would be fewer people around.

His life began to change in March, 2012.  During a grueling 36-hour operation, surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center performed a face transplant. Norris is the 24th face transplant patient in the world, says the lead surgeon, Dr. Eduardo D. Rodriguez, chief of plastic surgery for the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

These days, Rodriguez says, he is likely to greet Norris at his follow up appointments by saying "You're running late."  It's usually because he stops to talk to so many people in the medical center enroute to his appointment, Rodriguez says.

During the surgery, the team replaced his face from the scalp to the midline of the neck. He has new jaw bones, teeth, tongue, muscles and nerves.

In mid-October, his surgeons released a status report, complete with photos. Norris released a written statement, reflecting on the last seven months.

"I am now able to walk past people and no one even gives me a second look," says Norris, obviously delighted at the lack of attention..

"I am recovering and adjusting very well. I spend a lot of my time fishing, golfing and spending time with my family and friends."

So far, he's had no complications, he writes, and his body is taking to the crucial anti-rejection medication. By some miracle, his eyesight was spared in the accident.

Even so, he has miles yet to travel, as he knows. He's regaining his speech thanks to regular speech therapy. He goes to physical therapy and remains upbeat. "Each day it improves a little more," he writes.

Peak improvement, Rodriguez predicts, will come at about a year after the surgery.

The surgeons are concerned about far more than aesthetics. The functional result--how the face moves and works--is also crucial, Rodriguez says.

That is a work in progress, the surgeon says. "Right now, he can smile, but not symmetrically. The right side is moving more than the left, but they are catching up."

"He is able to chew with his own teeth," Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez is very pleased with the results--but readily acknowledges he is biased.

A colleague, not involved in the case, gave TakePart his evaluation. "So far the results look wonderful," says Dr. Reza Jarrahy, surgical co-director  of the University of California Los Angeles face transplantation program, just launched earlier this year.

He, too, says that the recovery is a work in progress.

The release of the status report on Norris triggered an avalanche of media interest. What explains our fascination with the surgery?

"Our faces are how we present ourselves to the world," Jarrahy says. Changing the face as extensively as  the transplant does, he tells TakePart, "remains a radical idea."

"It's almost science fiction," Rodriguez says.

It's not just the mechanics of the surgery that captures people's attention,  Rodriguez says. "I think the public is fascinated by stories that change the course of an individual's life. ''

"It's really transformational," he says of the surgery.

Norris was just 22 when the gunshot changed his world. His friends, he writes, moved on with their lives as he became a recluse.

He plans to play catch up. "I can now start working on the new life given back to me," he says.

In between that golfing, fishing and socializiing, he's thinking about the life he never dared dream about before. 

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