FORT WORTH, Texas – From the start, Dallas Wiens has believed that the face he woke up with after surgery was his own.
Not a mask. Not the nose, eyelids, lips, hair, skin or gray-tinged beard of another man, but his.
“To me, it is who I am,” said Wiens, 26. “It’s me.”
As the country’s first full-face transplant recipient, Wiens has not only accepted, but embraced his face and his fate every step of the way.
“Every day when I wake, I look forward to getting up,” he said. “I thank God and the donor’s family that I wake up to a miracle every day.”
Now back in his grandparents’ Fort Worth home after the groundbreaking surgery in Boston, Wiens is noticeably relaxed as he settles into his new life. For the first time since the accident in 2008 that cost him his sight and erased his facial features, he can feel his daughter’s kiss brush his cheek, smell lasagna cooking and recognize the scent of a friend’s perfume. He is especially pleased with his nose and can breathe deeply, and even sneeze.
Since the transplant in March there have been no episodes of rejection. Despite a few rough spots after the surgery when the medications made him feel awful and the ordeal zapped his energy, Wiens has gained 12 pounds and is bouncing back.
As the swelling has gone down, Wiens has gotten to know this new face with no forehead wrinkles, some graying whiskers and a barely visible scar where old and new connect.
So convinced is Wiens that his body has totally accepted the transplant – from an anonymous older donor whom he knows little about – that when he runs his fingers through his new dark brown hair, he says it feels just like it did before the accident.
“My body is changing the hair color,” said Wiens, who attributes the texture and color change to hormones. “I have gray hair now exactly where I had gray hair before.”
It is an observation made by a man who cannot see the changes himself, but who is so highly attuned to his body that he can tell when he is getting sick days before symptoms appear.
He knows, too, how important it is to his recovery that he accept the face, not just physically, but mentally.
This resiliency and iron-clad commitment to life is typical of Wiens.
“You won’t meet too many people in life like Dallas,” said Dr. Jeffrey Janis, chief of plastic surgery at Parkland Memorial Hospital and an associate professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “He has amazing strength, mental fortitude and deep faith.”
As remarkable as the groundbreaking face transplant is, the real story lies with Wiens himself.
“For me he’s been an inspiration,” Janis said. “He is a true testament to the human spirit.”
Wiens’ deeply religious family knew from the start how very bleak the outlook was. It was Nov. 13, 2008. Wiens had been painting a Fort Worth church when the cherry picker he was riding in brushed against a high-voltage electrical wire.
He was rushed by helicopter to Parkland, where doctors told the family that if he survived he would be paralyzed. This was in addition to the burns that had left him without any facial features.
“We never knew day-to-day whether he would live or not,” his brother David said. “I was always scared I would get one of those phone calls to get to the hospital fast.”
Wiens spent three months in a therapeutic coma while his family took turns sitting by his bed. Then one day, while clasping his hand with hers, Sue Peterson unconsciously pushed her grandson’s thumb down. He pushed back.
“We had a little thumb war,” she said. “I knew from that moment on he was in there.”
Always headstrong and stubborn, Wiens drew on those qualities, along with his faith and family, to get him through 22 surgeries, including a 32-hour operation that used tissue from his back to create a featureless “melon” face. Along the way, his 4-year-old daughter, Scarlette, just 18 months old at the time of the accident, was his greatest motivation.
Seeing him the first time did take his brother aback, but only briefly.
“The same mannerisms and mindset were there,” he said. “I knew it was still Dallas.”
Within a month of leaving the hospital, Wiens, who was not expected to walk or speak, asked his grandmother to take his wheelchair to the shed and leave it there.
Rather than become a recluse, Wiens chose to go out into the world.
“He wanted to prove he could lead just as normal a life as anyone else,” David Wiens said.
That meant ignoring the stares that he could not see but could feel just the same.
“Most people have been wonderful, but some have a lack of social graces,” he said.
Wiens’ recovery gave him lots of time with Scarlette.
“She would decorate him with jewelry and put prince clothes on him,” Peterson recalled. “Then he would pretend to be her prince and would ask her for a dance.”
Not for a moment did Scarlette ever have trouble accepting him.
“To her, I was always Daddy who just had a boo-boo,” said Wiens, who is divorced from Scarlette’s mother. “She knew I couldn’t see with my eyes, but I could see with my hands and heart.”
More than two years had passed since that awful day in 2008 when Peterson walked into Parkland’s emergency room to find her grandson on a gurney, his skin blackened, his hair melded to his scalp and his lips turned inside out.
The transplant that had seemed like science fiction became a reality. It was paid for by the U.S. Department of Defense, which gave Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston a grant for research that could benefit disfigured soldiers. Wiens did not have medical insurance when he was injured.
After extensive testing to become a transplant candidate, he underwent the more than 15-hour surgery in March and began the recovery process.
At long last, Wiens is getting on with his life.
He plans to start physical therapy in Fort Worth soon and is already re-learning how to use his cane to get around town. Now, Wiens said, when he goes out, it is his cane that strangers notice and not his face.
This month, he will return to Boston for surgery to remove excess skin and revise scar tissue. It is mostly a matter of tweaking what has been done, Janis said. Later, Wiens hopes to get teeth implants. He learned to speak well with his melon face, but he is not quite used to talking with his new mouth, Peterson said.
One of his biggest goals is to encourage others, especially those who have been disfigured.
“People tell me they would rather die than go through what I did,” he said. “I’m glad I didn’t die.
”There’s a lot of life to enjoy.“