Written for Wounds1 by Michelle Alford
“When I woke up and was able to feel where I had features again--eyelids, a nose, and a mouth--I even said out loud that this should not be medically possible because it doesn’t seem like it should be." For most people, waking up with basic facial features is an everyday event, but for Dallas Wiens, who has lived the last two years without a face, having just eyelids, a nose, and a mouth is a miracle.
Dallas Wiens is the first American to receive a full-face transplant. He lost his face in November 2008 when he was severely burned by a high voltage electrical line. He was only twenty-three years old. In March of this year, he underwent a fifteen-hour operation to receive a donor’s face—including the donor’s olfactory nerves. “We weren’t sure if I would be able to smell again and, if I could, how well it would work, but the olfactory nerves were fully intact so it’s as if there was no injury to begin with,” Dallas explains. “My favorite smell was the hibiscus that my nurse brought into my room… The smell of life, plant life, again. To know that I could smell a rose again really hit home.”
The return of his sense of smell was an added benefit. For Dallas, the simple ability to breathe through his nose normally again was an amazing gift in itself.
History of Face Transplantation
1994--Sandeep Kaur, first full-face replant
2005--Isabelle Dinoire, first partial face transplant
2010--Unnamed patient, first full-face transplant
2011--Dallas Wiens, first full-face transplant in America
Face transplantation is still a new technology. The first steps towards face transplantation were taken in 1994 when nine-year-old Sandeep Kaur’s face and scalp were reconnected by doctors after being torn off by a thresher. Eleven years later, the first partial face transplant was performed in France. Isabelle Dinoire’s nose and mouth were mauled by her dog and replaced with the facial tissue of a brain dead patient. Her immune system later rejected the foreign tissue and she had to undergo a second surgery.
Dallas is only the third known patient world-wide to undergo a full-face transplantation. Unlike many other face transplant patients, despite having the majority of his face burned off, Dallas did not isolate himself from the world prior to his surgery. Soon after he was released from the hospital, his friends and family forced him to leave his house and interact with the world. He became a regular at a local coffee shop and was often seen with his young daughter. The only events he wasn’t comfortable attending were his daughter’s school activities and dance recitals because he didn’t want to attract negative attention to her. The sorrow at missing these was a major driving force in his decision to pursue the face transplantation.
His daughter Scarlet has helped him through the difficult years. “The injury didn’t faze her, and the transplant didn’t faze her,” says Dallas. “To her I’m still daddy, and that, in of itself, is an amazing thing.” He says she was nervous when she first saw him after the surgery, but when she recognized him she exclaimed, “Daddy, you’re so handsome!” and crawled into his lap.
Dallas is looking forward to when he can return home to his daughter and start his life with a new face. “To me the face feels natural,” he says. “It feels as if it’s become my own. I know that there’s a lot of healing still left to do. And I’m willing to take the time that I need to do that. I can never express what has been done. What I’ve been given in this procedure.”
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