She can eat pizza. And hamburgers. She can smell perfume, drink coffee from a cup, and purse her lips as if to blow a kiss.
Except that one lip is hers, and the other is from a dead woman. She is the nation’s first face transplant patient, and on Thursday night, she went home from a Cleveland hospital.
“I’m happy about myself,” she told her doctors.
“She accepted her new face,” said Dr. Maria Siemionow, the Cleveland Clinic reconstructive surgeon who led the historic operation in early December.
The woman’s identity has not been revealed, and hospital officials won’t say where she went. She and her family have declined requests for an interview.
She suffered a traumatic injury several years ago, the details of which doctors also won’t reveal. But it left the woman with no nose, palate, or way to eat or breathe normally. In a 22-hour procedure, 80 percent of her face was replaced with bone, muscles, nerves, skin and blood vessels from another woman who had just died.
It was the fourth partial face transplant in the world, though the others were not as extensive.
The patient’s recovery has been astonishing, Siemionow said. She shows no signs of rejecting her new face, is doing well on standard immune-suppressing drugs, and can breathe normally instead of through a hole in her windpipe.
A couple weeks ago, she ate pizza for the first time in years.
“She can actually feel the new face, and she does not feel the difference between her old face and her new face,” Siemionow said.
“Before surgery, she couldn’t smell at all,” the surgeon said. Now, “she can recognize perfumes, she can eat and smell her hamburger … she can drink her coffee from the cup.”
Most surprising to doctors, who thought a transplanted face would never be able to do this: “She can wink her eye,” Siemionow said.
Her face appears so normal that she could probably even could go out in public and not be recognized as someone who had a face transplant, Siemionow said.
Already, the improvement in her quality of life is dramatic, and she is enjoying small pleasures “that we take for granted,” Siemionow said.
“It’s something that will give a lot of hope to other patients,” Siemionow said.