A 33-year-old Polish man received a face transplant just three weeks after being disfigured in a workplace accident, in what his doctors said Wednesday is the fastest time frame to date for such an operation. It was Poland's first face transplant.
Face transplants are extraordinarily complicated and relatively rare procedures that usually require extensive preparation of the recipient over a period of months or years. But medical officials said the Polish patient's condition was deteriorating so rapidly that a transplant was seen as the only way to save his life. The patient is now being watched for any potential infections.
In a photo taken Tuesday, just six days after the surgery, the patient, identified only by his first name, Grzegorz, was shown giving a thumbs-up sign from his hospital bed. Another picture, based on computer tomography, showed the extensive damage to his skull.
He was injured in an April 23 accident at his job at a stone mason's workshop near the southwestern city of Wroclaw when a machine used to cut stone tore off most of his face and crushed his upper jaw.
He received intensive treatment at a hospital in Wroclaw that saved his life and eyesight. But an attempt to reattach his own face failed, leaving an area close to the brain exposed to infections, doctors said. The damage was too extensive for doctors to temporarily seal the exposed areas.
So he was taken to the Cancer Center and Institute of Oncology in Gliwice, the only place in Poland licensed to perform face transplants. The centre has experience in facial reconstruction for patients disfigured by cancer and its experts have practiced face transplants on cadavers.
Doctors at the centre said the 27-hour face and bone transplant was performed May 15 soon after a matching donor was found.
The surgery reconstructed the area around the eyes, the nose, jaws and palate and other parts of the man's face. Pictures show stitches running from above the patient's right eye, under the left eye and around the face to the neck.
The donor, a 34-year-old man, was chosen from a national registry of potential donors after his age, gender, blood group and body features were determined to be a good match for the injured man.
The head of the team of surgeons and other specialists, Dr. Adam Maciejewski, said it was the first time a face transplant was carried out so soon after the damage. Face transplants are usually a last resort after conventional reconstructive and plastic surgeries have been tried.
"In such an extensive injury, where the structures close to the skull base and in contact with the brain area are exposed, any infection would be dangerous, not to mention the impossibility to function normally, including problems with breathing, with eating," Maciejewski said. "All that led us in one direction."
"We assume the surgery will allow the patient to return to normal life. He will be able to breathe, to eat, to see."
Maciejewski said that over time, the face will mould to the man's facial bone structure and he will not look like the donor.