World's first African-American face transplant performed at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Boston hospital completes first full face transplant for African-American

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

The world's first full face transplant on an African-American patient was successfully performed at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital.

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Robert Chelsea, 68, became not only the first black patient to receive the transplant but also the oldest person to have undergone the procedure.

Done in July, the 16-hour surgery involved a team of over 45 physicians, nurses, anesthesiologists, residents and research fellows and was led by Dr. Bohdan Pomahac. The procedure was the ninth face transplant done at the hospital and the 15th nationwide.

"Despite being the oldest face transplant patient at 68, Robert is progressing and recovering remarkably fast," said Pomahac, the Roberta and Stephen R. Weiner Distinguished Chair in Surgery and director of Plastic Surgery Transplantation at Brigham Health. "We are looking forward to seeing a significant improvement in Robert's quality of life."

Chelsea suffered serious burn injuries in a fiery freeway accident outside of Los Angeles in August 2013. He had been sitting inside his overheated car on the side of the road when he was hit by a drunk driver.

The car exploded upon impact, causing third-degree burns on over 50% of Chelsea's body. After the crash, both Chelsea's physical function, as well as his appearance, were severely affected, WFXT reported.

For six months, Chelsea remained in a coma and was hospitalized for a year and a half. During that time, he underwent more than 30 surgeries, but his lips, part of his nose and left ear could not be reconstructed. After an evaluation and an extensive screening process, Chelsea was listed for a face transplant in March 2018.

However, finding a donor that would match his skin tone made the process longer than that of previous Brigham face transplant recipients. Another black patient in Paris received a partial face transplant in 2007, making Chelsea the first to receive a full face transplant.

"It is vitally important for individuals of all races and ethnicities to consider organ donation, including the donation of external grafts, such as face and hands," said Alexandra Glazier, President and CEO of New England Donor Services. "Unlike internal organs, the skin tone of the donor may be important to finding a match."

"May God bless the donor and his family who chose to donate this precious gift and give me a second chance," said Chelsea. "Words cannot describe how I feel. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and feel very blessed to receive such an amazing gift. I am forever indebted to Brigham and Women's Hospital, the most amazing surgical and nurse team ever assembled. The place oozes compassion."

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Follow-up data from previous face transplants done at Brigham and Women's found that patients "experienced robust return of motor and sensory function of their face, as well as functionality, which allowed them to socially reintegrate in a way that would not have been possible before the transplant."

According to the recent findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the data points to the probability that Chelsea could likely regain a "near-normal sensation and about 60 percent restoration of facial motor function within a year, including the ability to eat, smile and speak normally."

"Our previous experience has demonstrated that face transplantation is a viable option for patients with severe disfigurement and limited function who have no alternatives," Pomahac told WFXT.. "As we continue to expand this treatment to more patients, we are exploring the ways in which we can quantify how much benefit our patients receive as well as identifying opportunities to limit the risks of this transplant through new immunosuppression protocols."

Brigham and Women's was the first hospital in the country to perform a full face transplant in 2011 and the first bilateral hand transplant in New England in 2011. The hospital was also the pioneer in performing the first successful human organ donor transplant, a kidney, in 1954, the first heart transplant in New England in 1984 and the first heart-lung transplant in Massachusetts in 1992.

"This experience has been an incredible journey for me, filled at times with many challenges," said Chelsea, in a statement. "Today, however, I am thrilled to say that I'm on the road to recovery thanks to the incredible team of doctors and staff at Brigham and Women's Hospital, the love and support of my family and friends, and my unwavering faith."

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