- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Virginia man, who about 100 days ago underwent the most extensive face transplant surgery ever performed, has regained the ability to smell and taste, as well as what he called a sense of normalcy after 15 years of hiding.

Richard Lee Norris, 37, on Tuesday credited the work of the University of Maryland’s plastic and reconstructive surgery team with ending his life in isolation. He said they helped him close out the routine he was forced to adopt in 1997, when a gun accident destroyed his upper and lower jaws, as well as his lips and nose.

“For the past 15 years, I lived as a recluse, hiding behind a surgical mask and doing most of my shopping at night when less people were around,” Mr. Norris said. “People used to stare at me because of my disfigurement. I am now able to walk past people and no one even gives me a second look. My friends have moved on with their lives, starting families and careers. I can now start working on the new life given back to me.”

The face transplant was done over a 36-hour period between March 19 and March 20 at the university hospital’s R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

The lead doctor, Eduardo Rodriguez, said Mr. Norris was “exceeding my expectations” for post-surgery recovery as the Hillsville resident continues to gain movement and strength in his new face.

Doctors transplanted facial bones, nerves, muscles, teeth, soft tissues, and even a tongue to Mr. Norris‘ damaged face, Dr. Rodriguez said.

The surgery was the first of its kind performed by a team of doctors who specialize in facial injuries and reconstructive plastic surgery.

Mr. Norris said his surgery replaced everything on his face between his scalp and neck. He is also the first facial transplant patient to keep his eyesight.

“Our goal for Richard from the beginning was to restore facial harmony and functional balance,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “He deserves a great deal of credit for the countless hours spent practicing his speech and strengthening his new facial muscles. He’s one of the most courageous and committed individuals I know.”

Mr. Norris has developed 80 percent motor function on the right side of this face. Doctors said the left side of his face has about 40 percent movement, allowing him to show expressions and smile. He can also eat with his mouth.

Mr. Norris started multiple therapies just days after his surgery to begin restoring the physical strength in his face, as well as to relearn how to speak.

“On the third day after receiving my face transplant, with my family around, I asked for a mirror and I looked into it,” he said. “I put the mirror down and the only thing I could do was hug Dr. Rodriguez, who said it was a very humbling experience. On the sixth day I was actually up brushing my teeth and shaving.”

Over the next few months Mr. Norris recovered in the hospital and remained in Baltimore for follow-up appointments and to work on his speech.

“I have been doing very well regaining my speech back,” Mr. Norris said. “Each day it improves a little more.”

In his free time, Mr. Norris said he spends time with his family, goes fishing, and is improving his golf game.

Along with Mr. Norris‘ therapy, doctors continue to monitor any reactions his body might have to the donated organs and the medicine he takes to prevent his body from rejecting the foreign tissue.

Doctors from the transplant team said Mr. Norris‘ surgery was the result of more than a decade of research prompted by the desire to help soldiers seriously wounded by explosives.

Dr. Stephen T. Bartlett, a Peter Angelos distinguished professor and chairman of the department of surgery at the university’s school of medicine, said Mr. Norris‘ success has given them hope for future operations.

“We are even more dedicated to researching ways to improve facial transplantation and helping more patients, including military veterans, return to normal lives after undergoing this same surgery.”

The first near-total facial transplant done in the United States was performed in 2008 at the Cleveland Clinic. During that surgery, a woman named Connie Culp underwent a 22-hour surgery to replace 80 percent of her face, which was destroyed when her husband shot her.

Ms. Culp and the family of the donor eventually came forward with their identities, but as of Tuesday, the donor and family behind Mr. Norris‘ transplant remained nameless.

Despite the anonymity, Mr. Norris and his doctors acknowledged their sacrifice.

“We are really changing the quality of life of an individual,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “So for somebody to give up their organs, and in this case, to give up the face of a loved one, is an incredible gift.”

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