May 22, 2013 at 10:14 AM ET
Editors note: A graphic image of the patient post surgery is at the bottom of the page.
A 33-year-old Polish man received a life-saving total face transplant just three weeks after being disfigured in a workplace accident, in what his doctors said Wednesday is the fastest timeframe to date for such an operation.
Face transplants are extraordinarily complicated and relatively rare procedures that in the past have required extensive preparation, typically months or years. But medical officials said the Polish patient's condition was deteriorating so rapidly that a transplant was seen as the only option, though now he still faces a high risk of infection.
The patient worked at stonemason's workshop, where in April a machine used to cut stone severely damaged his face and crushed his upper jaw. The man, identified only as Grzegorz, received intensive treatment at a hospital in Wroclaw, but an attempt to replant his own face failed, doctors said.
So he was taken to the Cancer Center and Institute of Oncology in Gliwice, which is the only place in Poland licensed to do face transplants and has experience in facial reconstruction for patients disfigured by cancer. Doctors at the center said the 27-hour face and bone transplant was performed May 15 soon after a matching donor was found.
The surgery reconstructed the face, jaws, palate and the bottom of the man's eye sockets. Pictures show surgery stitches running from above the patient's right eye, under the left eye and around the face to the neck. The donor was also a young man.
The head of the team of surgeons and other specialists, Adam Maciejewski, said it was the world's first life-saving face transplant carried out so soon after the damage.
He and other doctors said the surgery was the patient's only shot at survival — prior to the operation the man faced danger from infections because of the tremendous damage to his mouth area and the skull bone. The man also could not breathe on his own nor eat.
"We assume the surgery will allow the patient to return to normal life," Maciejewski said. "He will be able to breathe, to eat, to see."
However, surgeon Michal Grajek told The Associated Press that the patient still runs a risk of infection because the team did not have time to cure any potential infections in the donor tissue. For now, the patient is in sterile isolation to protect him from infection, but he has already started the rehabilitation process.
He will stay on immunosuppression drugs for the rest of his life to keep his body from rejecting the donated face.
A picture of the patient taken Tuesday, six days after the surgery, showed him giving a thumbs-up sign from his hospital bed.
More than two dozen transplants of the face or parts of the face have been performed around the world. The first one was a partial face transplant in a woman maimed by her dog in France in 2005.
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