“Monster!” called the little girl. Connie’s instant reaction to that was to pull out her driver’s license and show the child her picture.
Connie was a beautiful woman until the horrible day when her face was disfigured in a shotgun blast. The person who did this to her was none other than her estranged husband, who shot her in the face, leaving her nose, cheeks, the roof of her mouth and an eye shattered. Hundreds of shotgun pellet fragments were embedded deep in her face. She could only breathe with the help of a tube fixed into her windpipe and her sense of smell was gone. The only parts of her face that were left were her forehead, eyelids, lower lip and chin.
Culp was just 8 feet away from her husband, outside a restaurant in Hopedale, Ohio, when he pulled the shotgun’s trigger. He tried to kill himself too but he survived and was sent to prison.
After the shooting, she was in a hospital and in personal care home for two years, during which time she also had problems with her vision and was learning Braille.
Her husband may have left Connie’s face marred for life but he could not touch her spirit, which is as alive as it was earlier. Despite what her husband did to her, she says, “I’ll always love him. He was my first love.”
It is this inner strength that gave her the endurance needed for numerous operations and made her go public, revealing her pictures, as the first recipient of a total face transplant.
Never one to sleep her life away, two months after this horrific incident, she approached a plastic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, Risal Djohan, who took a look at her injuries and told her that he was not sure if he could fix her. But he was willing to try and do what he could for her.
She had to go through 30 operations to try and fix her face. Doctors had to use one of her ribs to fashion her cheekbones and they used one of her leg bones to recreate her upper jaw. She endured countless skin grafts from her thighs. Even after all that, she could not breathe on her own, eat solid food or even smell.
Meanwhile, unknown to Connie, Dr. Siemionow, the Cleveland, Ohio hospital’s director of plastic surgery research and head of microsurgery training, was on the lookout for the right candidate for a face transplant, not someone who was looking to go out on the street and be beautiful. She has more than 20 years of experience in complex transplants and by 2004, she was ready to perform a total face transplant.
When Connie wanted to be that lucky person, she had to go through a number of tests before it was determined that she was a perfect candidate for this type of surgery. Then the next step was to find a donor, and it had to be a woman who was in her mid 40s and Caucasian, in order to match Connie.
All her endurance and the doctors’ efforts paid off when they found a dead woman that matched Connie and that woman’s family gave permission. On December 10, 2009, a team of doctors led by Maria Siemionow performed the first ever total face transplant on Connie Culp. This was a 22-hour operation, where doctors replaced 80% of her face with bone, muscles, nerves, skin and blood vessels from the dead woman.
Connie is grateful to her plastic surgeon, Djohan and says, “Here I am, five years later. He did what he said – I got me my nose.”
She can now smell, smile, talk and taste her food again; although, her expressions are still a bit wooden, her speech is not always easily understood and her face is a square shape and bloated. Her skin droops in big folds which the doctors plan to work on once her circulation improves and her nerves grow, improving her muscles.
It has been five months since her operation and despite there being a few things that may need improvement, Connie is the happiest person there can ever be. She is grateful and all praise for the doctors who gave her a new face and a new life. She lives at home now and is full of live – feeling good again and enjoying life.
Although, this was the fourth face transplant in the world, the others were not as extensive as this one. She has bravely come forward to let the world see her pictures before the operation and how she looks like now, as the first recipient of total face transplant in the United States. Her bravery and determination to live life to the fullest are __ to many.