Image: Video snapshot of a woman who received a partial face transplant.
A woman who received a partial face transplant is shown here being taken from the operating room.
updated 12/5/2005 12:13:49 PM ET 2005-12-05T17:13:49

The woman who received the world’s first partial face transplant generally kept to herself before the surgery and wore a surgical mask to hide her disfigured face when she walked her new dog, neighbors said.

Many in her neighborhood of small red-brick apartment buildings in northern France did not want to pry so never realized that the woman’s face had been mutilated in a dog attack.

“Every evening, I saw her out walking, wearing a mask,” said Belgassem Kahouri, a 57-year-old machine operator whose apartment overlooks the woman’s top-floor windows, trimmed with white lace curtains. “I assumed she had an allergy or some problem breathing, maybe trouble with pollution.”

Kahouri said he and some other neighbors learned the woman’s story only by watching television news reports.

“She did not speak to people much, except maybe to say ’bonjour,”’ said Moossa al-Karkouri, a 20-year-old student who often saw the patient out walking, sometimes with her mother, who lived next door. “She seems to be a very discreet woman.”

The woman received a section of a nose, lips and chin in the 15-hour transplant surgery on Nov. 27 in the northern city of Amiens. Doctors, citing French laws protecting the anonymity of patients, have refused to identify the patient other than to say she was a 38-year-old divorced mother of two teenage daughters.

The patient was expected to remain hospitalized in the southeast city of Lyon for four to six weeks.

She was mauled by a pet Labrador in May, leaving her with severe facial injuries that her doctors said made it difficult for her to speak and eat.

The Labrador was put down, but neighbors said the woman was an animal lover and bought a smaller dog after the attack.

The patient’s mother declined a request to be interviewed, saying she was overwhelmed by the number of reporters who showed up on her doorstep and worried about the effect it would have on her two granddaughters.

Jeanne-Marie Binot, administrator of the local Society for the Protection of Animals, said it was likely the Labrador had passed through her service, though she had no written record of it and did not recall the case.

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One of the woman’s daughters reportedly told French media that the dog had tried to wake her mother and had no intention of harming her — a scenario that a local dog trainer said was possible.

“The dog undoubtedly wanted to re-establish contact with (its) master, in any way he could,” said Pascal Duplouy, who had no contact with the animal in question.

“It’s true that when a dog is in a state of panic, it can scratch and scratch and scratch his master’s face, to try to wake her, without realizing the harm it’s doing,” Duplouy said.

The partial face was donated by the family of a woman who was declared brain dead. Her identity also has not been made public.

Doctors have said the patient was thriving medically and psychologically. But critics have cast a shadow on the groundbreaking transplant, with some saying doctors rushed ahead with a radical — and untested — procedure, bypassing classic reconstructive surgery when the situation was not urgent.

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