December 5, 2005 in Nation/World

Parisian woman thriving after partial face transplant

Elaine Ganley Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

French surgeon Bernard Devauchelle, left, points to a sketch as surgeon Jean-Michel Dubernard looks on during a press conference in Lyon, central France, on Friday regarding the world’s first partial face transplant.
(Full-size photo)

PARIS – The recipient of the world’s first partial face transplant was thriving medically and psychologically a week after her groundbreaking surgery, one of her doctors said Sunday.

The woman, whose face had been partially disfigured by a dog, appeared relatively normal after the operation and doctors were pleased with her mental state, Dr. Jean-Michel Dubernard said in a telephone interview. Doctors had been worried about the potentially negative psychological effects of receiving part of someone else’s face.

“She is perfect,” Dubernard said. “Psychologically, she is doing very well.”

Dubernard, one of the woman’s two lead surgeons, said that the 38-year-old would remain hospitalized in the southeast city of Lyon for four to six weeks. She must take drugs to prevent her body from rejecting the donated facial parts, which Dubernard has said carry “a slightly more elevated risk of cancer.”

The woman received a section of a nose, lips and chin in the 15-hour transplant surgery on Nov. 27 in the northern city of Amiens, near her home. The woman, the divorced mother of two teenage daughters, has not been identified by name.

She was mauled by a pet Labrador in May, leaving her with severe facial injuries that her doctors said made it difficult for her to speak and eat. The dog was put down.

The weekly newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche quoted one of the woman’s surgeons as saying she “had no more face” before the procedure. “She only had her eyes, and when she saw her daughters she cried,” Sylvie Testelin told the paper.

The partial face was donated by the family of a woman who was declared brain dead. Her identity has also not been made public.

Despite the upbeat news, critics cast a shadow on the groundbreaking transplant, with some saying doctors rushed ahead with a radical – and untested – procedure, bypassing classic reconstructive surgery when the situation was not urgent.

“This is pure experimentation,” Emmanuel Hirsch, a medical ethics professor, told Le Journal du Dimanche. He said he felt surgeons rushed into the operation when “all the guarantees had not been given.”

Hirsch handles ethical issues at a new council within the French Health Ministry agency that coordinates organ procurement – and approved the transplant. Hirsch told the newspaper he was aghast that he had not been informed of the case.

The council was formed only in September, and Carine Camby, who heads the agency, told Le Journal du Dimanche that there was a “certain urgency” in the case because scar tissue that was forming could have made the transplant impossible.

Surgeons have said the necessary precautions were taken.

“We explained everything to her, the benefits and the risks,” Testelin told the paper.

Dubernard led teams that performed a hand transplant in 1998 and the world’s first double forearm transplant in January 2000.

The hand transplant recipient later had it amputated. Doctors said the man had become “mentally detached” from his new hand and failed to take the required drugs. His body rejected the limb.

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