An Ohio woman who was shot in the face by her husband has become the recipient of the first U.S. face transplant.
Now she's going public and wants to tell her story.
Connie Culp was disfigured and blind after getting shot in an attempted murder-suicide in September 2004. The shot shattered her jaw, cheek and nose.
Culp's husband, Thomas, shot her from 8 feet way, then turned the gun on himself. Both survived. He was later sentenced to seven years in prison.
A team of doctors and surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic performed the transplant Dec. 10.
Clinic officials said it was largest, most complex surgery of its kind.
In the 22-hour procedure, surgeons transplanted 80 percent of Culp's face, essentially replacing everything, except for her upper eyelids, forehead, lower lip and chin.
Culp first went to the Cleveland Clinic four years ago after the shooting. She was identified as a possible face transplant recipient, but neither wasn't ready yet for the procedure, clinic officials said.
Doctors said Culp bares no resemblance to her donor. She is very thankful to the donor and to the doctors.
"Well, you all want to focus on me. I think it's real important that you focus on the donor family that made it so I can have this Christmas present, I guess I should say," Culp said.
She can now taste and smell.
Culp still has excess skin that will need to be removed within the next year. The Clinic said it will take two years for her to look normal again.
"I want just to emphasize that face transplantation was the first step to restore all her functions. She will still have the procedures where the excess of the skin will be removed, but we are waiting for regeneration," said Dr. Maria Siemionow, the clinic's director of Plastic Surgery Research and Head of Microsurgery Training.
Culp said she wanted the transplant because she was tired of people pointing at her and laughing at her.
"You never know what might happen to you. You might get in a car wreck and think of me one day. So don't judge people who don't look the same as you do. You never know that it might all be taken away," Culp said.
Surgeons integrated different functional components such as the nose and lower eyelids, as well as different tissue types, including skin, muscles, bony structures, arteries, veins and nerves.
The Cleveland Clinic said it is overwhelmed at the success of the transplant.
The transplant team was led by Siemionow, who received worldwide attention in November 2004, when the Clinic's Institutional Review Board announced that face transplantation is both ethical and possible by approving the first protocol for the surgery.
"As a physician, one of the most rewarding things we can do is to restore the quality of life to a patient," said Siemionow. "Patients with facial disfigurement have very difficult challenges in society.
We hope that one day we may be able to help the tens of thousands of patients who are quietly suffering."
Siemionow said Culp is full of joy and joking.
"She's joking even in this emotional moment and she's very committed. She's committed not only to the fact that she needs to take medications for life and be very careful about potential signs of rejection if they ever happen, but also she's committed to help others who have a similar deformity or specifically she's very committed to actually go and talk about the children how guns are important to understand what they can do," said Siemionow.
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