Connie Culp, the brave woman who was the first face transplant recipient in the United States, died at 57-years-old, cause of death unknown. According the Cleveland Clinic, she had undergone 30 corrective surgeries before receiving a face transplant at the Northeast Ohio clinic. The transplant surgery was 22-hour operation to complete and happened back in December 2008.
Dr. Frank Papay is the chair of Cleveland Clinic’s Dermatology and Plastic Surgery Institute and was part of Culp’s surgical team, leading her care since she started treatment at the clinic over 12 years ago. In an emailed statement to TODAY, Dr. Papay praised Culp for her contributions to medical science, explaining, “Connie was an incredibly brave, vibrant woman and an inspiration to many. Her strength was evident in the fact that she had been the longest-living face transplant patient to date. She was a great pioneer and her decision to undergo a sometimes-daunting procedure is an enduring gift for all humanity.”
Back in 2004, Culp’s husband shot her, before he turned the gun on himself in a failed murder-suicide attempt. They both survived, and he was sent to jail for seven years. However, Culp’s face injuries included a shattered nose, cheekbones, the roof of her mouth and eye, while his injuries were not nearly as bad.
Culp used her situation to help further medical science in face transplants. After her surgery, 40 other face transplants took place around the world, and doctors are learning so much more about the procedure. Dr. Maria Siemionow, the leader in Culp’s face transplant surgery, explained, “We are connecting the donor and recipient bone marrow cells to support face transplantation and other organ transplants in order to induce tolerance and reduce the need for lifelong immunosuppression.”
She also added, “Thinking about Connie is thinking about someone who’s not giving up, and I’ll not give up.”
Culp was not only known for her bravery with helping further research in face transplants, but she also forgave her husband and used her story to speak out against domestic violence. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to get used to see a different normal face after something as traumatic as this. I’m just so ecstatic that Connie Culp used her story to help transform a big part of the medical field and to encourage other victims of domestic violence.
There is no standard in face transplants. Each procedure is incredibly personalized, structuring the upper jaw, reconstructing bone structures, countless skin grafts, and the list goes on. It takes a dedicated team of doctors to work together to complete a groundbreaking operation such as a total face transplant.