Eleven months after a facial transplant operation in New York, Cameron Underwood smiled again.
A 26-year-old man from Yuba, California, lost most of his lower jaw, nose and all but one tooth after suffering a self-injured wound on his face in June 2016.
After some unsuccessful attempts at conventional facial reconstruction, Underwood and his family reached a recognized plastic surgeon Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, professor of reconstructive plastic surgery and head of the Department of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone Health.
Soon afterwards, Rodriguez met with Underwood and found that he was a good candidate for facial transplantation.
"When we met Cameron for the first time, we were sure that we could improve his look and, more importantly, his function and quality of life," said Dr. Rodriguez in a press release on Thursday.
Underwood had to wait only six months after he was on the list of organ donors in July 2017 before a perfect match was discovered. William Fisher, a 23-year-old writer and ambitious filmmaker from New York, reported himself as a donor of organs before being killed and was selected as a compatible donor for Underwood.
Upon receipt of the permission of Fisher's family and the provision of appropriate approvals, Rodriguez is ready to lead a surgical team at NYU Langone Health in the third transplant of his career, the second of which is the widest facial transplant, according to the health center.
A plastic surgeon said he was optimistic about Underwood's ability to succeed because of a relatively short time – only 18 months – from the moment he was wounded after surgery.
"Cameron did not live with his injury for a decade or more, like most other facial transplant recipients," he said. "Therefore, he does not need to deal with a number of long-term psychosocial issues that often lead to problems such as severe depression, substance abuse and other potentially harmful behaviors."
In January, a group of over 100 health workers from NYU Langone Health transplanted and reconstructed Underwood's upper and lower jaw, mouth and all 32 teeth and gums. During the 25-hour surgery, the nose, lower eyelids and faces were also replaced.
The Surgical Team used state-of-the-art technology, including 3D imaging and intraoperative CAT scans to ensure that facial bones are completely aligned and that the plates and screws that have drawn the donor surface to Underwood are in the right position.
After a successful operation, Underwood spent several weeks in the hospital before being fired before the scheduled deadline in February. He returned home to California, and since then he travels to New York for monthly meetings.
On Thursday, Underwood appeared on stage in front of an audience that included his family with lamps to show the results of his surgical work almost a year ago. On this occasion, he thanked Dr. Rodriguez and his medical team and his donor family.
"I want Sally [Fisher’s mother] and her family to know how much my family and I value their gift, and I will always respect Will's legacy, "he told a press conference in New York.
Although she was sad about the death of her son, Sally said that she was grateful that his decision to become a donor would give Andrew a second chance.
"Being part of this experience was a power for me during a very difficult time. I do not think I would have survived Will's death if not for Cameron," she said in a statement. "Cameron has a whole life ahead of him – and I love the idea that Willie will help him with a better life."
Despite the impressive results of Underwood, Rodriguez said that his patient still has a lot to do with his treatment, such as improving chewing, swallowing and speaking. He will also have to continue his anti-reflux medication for the rest of his life so that his body does not reject his new face.
Although his path to recovery has not yet ended, Underwood said he remains positive and looks forward to the future. He also took a moment to praise Dr. Rodriguez for his efforts.
"He has done so well, I can use my old identity card," he joked at WCBS local press after a press conference.