Accident survivor may undergo rare face transplant

FORT WORTH, Texas | Dallas C. Wiens wants to be able to smile, to smell the rain, to feel his 3-year-old daughter’s kisses.

Two years ago, Mr. Wiens’ face was burned away in a horrible electrical accident that also left him blind. Although doctors were able to transfer skin and muscle from Wiens’ back and thighs onto his charred skull, he still doesn’t have lips, a nose or even eyebrows. Now, after about two dozen surgeries, the new federal health care law has helped make him eligible to become perhaps the third person in the U.S. to ever undergo a face transplant.

“I do miss my sight,” said Mr. Wiens, who lost his eyes in the accident. “But I miss the sensation of my face and my sense of smell the most.”

Mr. Wiens underwent dozens of physical and psychological tests before Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston — one of only two U.S. centers to perform the procedure — approved him as a candidate this month. The federal health care law helped him overcome one hurdle by allowing the 25-year-old Fort Worth man to be covered by his father’s insurance. Mr. Wiens likely will wait months more, doctors said, before a donor is found.

“I’m a little nervous as you can expect with any major procedure like this. I’m extremely excited over the possibility of just having a normal life back,” he said. “There’s no words to describe what that would be like.”

Mr. Wiens has no memory of the November 2008 accident that took his face. Working as a contractor, he was helping his brother and uncle paint a church when, while high above the ground on a boom lift, he hit a power line.

“I’m told I lost control of the lift and ended up moving directly into the power lines,” he said.

He was in a coma for three months and spent a total of six months at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas undergoing surgeries. A smooth layer of skin now covers where his eyes and nose once were and he has learned to get around with the help of a walking stick. Although he has no lips or even teeth, he speaks with a strong, clear voice and is easy to understand.

“I see every day as a challenge, an opportunity for hope and joy. I’m happier now than I think I’ve ever been in my life,” said Mr. Wiens, who lives in Fort Worth with his grandparents.

Medicaid paid for his initial care at Parkland, but he was dropped from the federal health care program for the poor when his disability payments put him over its income limits. As a disabled person, he’ll be able receive Medicare by June.

In the meantime, he needed his father’s insurance to help him pay for anti-rejection drugs, which will cost $1,300 to $2,000 a month, Mr. Wiens said. He was able to qualify for his father’s insurance because a provision of the federal health care law extends family insurance coverage to adult children until age 26.

The Department of Defense will pay for the cost of surgery, he said. It’s underwriting the transplant with the hope of eventually being able to help soldiers with severe facial injuries.

Dr. Jeffrey Janis, chief of plastic surgery at Parkland Health and Hospital System, said that when he met Mr. Wiens, his head was “a burned skull.” Dr. Janis was the one who first told Mr. Wiens about the possibility of a face transplant.

“It’s really miraculous that he was able to survive surgery, leave the hospital,” Dr. Janis said.

About a dozen face transplants have been performed worldwide since the first one, a partial transplant in France in 2006. Mr. Wiens is the only person awaiting a face transplant at Brigham and Women’s, a hospital spokesman said. No one is listed for the procedure at the Cleveland Clinic, the only other U.S. center to have performed the surgery.

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