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Chinese face transplant may need more surgery

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Chinese surgeon who led a partial face transplant on a farmer said Wednesday his patient might still need one or two more surgeries before his new face will be complete.

Doctors at the Xijing Hospital in central China had been practicing face transplant surgery on rabbits when they learned of a potential human candidate in February. By chance, Chinese environmentalists working in the remote mountains near Myanmar had discovered a farmer whose face was so disfigured by a bear attack that villagers shunned him.

On April 14, a team of 15 doctors and three nurses from the Xijing Hospital gave the farmer, Li Guoxing, a nose, upper lip, cheek and eyebrow from a brain dead donor.

The hospital, run by the People’s Liberation Army, said it was only the second time that the complex procedure had been attempted in the world.

Li “is chewing food by himself and taking three meals per day,” Dr. Guo Shuzhong, director of the hospital’s plastic surgery department, said in some of his first comments to the foreign press since the 15-hour surgery. “He is pretty optimistic about the operation’s result.”

Li might still need one or two smaller surgeries before doctors can consider the transplant complete, Guo said, but he would not give details.

The poor farmer’s journey from the remote mountains of Yunnan province to the operating table of an elite military hospital began in 2003 when he tried to use a stick to chase away a black bear attacking his cows and was himself brutally mauled, environmental activist Zhou Dequn said. The bear clawed at Li’s face, tearing away much of his upper lip, nose and cheek.

Zhou is a Chinese representative for The Nature Conservancy, a U.S. environmental group, working on a program to ease farmer anger over the growing numbers of black bears in Yunnan since laws were enacted to protect them in the late 1990s. The bears kill and eat valuable livestock and destroy crops, farmers say.

“We hoped that we could help the wildlife in Yunnan but we realized it’s also important to help the people there,” Zhou told The Associated Press by telephone from Yunnan’s capital, Kunming.

Through word of mouth and a loose network of environmentalists and researchers, Zhou heard that doctors at Xijing Hospital in central China’s Xi’an city had announced success in performing a partial face transplant on a rabbit.

The Nature Conservancy contacted the hospital and told them about Li’s condition.

With help from Zhou and his colleagues, Guo went to Yunnan in March, trekking two hours into the mountains to Ayuanluyi Village where Li and his family keep pigs, cows and sheep and grow corn and kidney beans.

'Like looking into a skull'

Speaking through a translator — as Li only speaks the dialect of his Lisu ethnic minority group — Guo examined his face and discussed the risks of the surgery with him, Zhou said. It was decided that Li would travel to Xi’an in March and if a donor could be found, the surgery would be attempted.

Since Li, his wife and two children survive on about $37 a year, Zhou’s group agreed to pay for his transportation and hotel costs until he got to Xi’an. The hospital agreed to do the operation without charge to Li, he said.

Following Li’s encounter with the bear in 2003, he had been unable to find odd jobs because other villagers were afraid to look at him and would not hire him, Zhou said.

“His face was very frightening looking,” said Zhou. “It was like looking into a skull.”

Doctors are waiting to see whether Li’s body rejects or accepts the donor tissue used to reconstruct his face over the next two months, Guo said.

“So far, his condition is really good,” Guo said.

Half a year ago, doctors in Amiens, France, performed what was apparently the world’s first partial face transplant, giving a donor’s lips, chin and nose to a woman who had been attacked by a dog.