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Landmark transplant patients to meet

/ Source: The Associated Press

Next week, the world's first double hand-transplant patient will meet the woman who just had the first partial face transplant.

Denis Chatelier, who has lived six years with new hands, says he will offer encouragement that only a fellow transplant patient can give.

"I'm not a psychologist, I'm not a psychoanalyst," Chatelier told The Associated Press in an interview. "But what I want to do is show her that later in life, she can be happy."

Today, the 39-year-old French father of five says his hands function at 80 percent. He can shave, drive, brush his teeth, write, dial a telephone, hold his children's hands, and feel sensations like pain and temperatures. He has only one hour of physical therapy a day. His life is nearly back to normal.

It has been a long, tough path.

Hardships ahead

Beyond encouragement, Chatelier wants to warn the face transplant patient — a 38-year-old French woman who, because of privacy laws, is identified in France only by her first name, Isabelle — about the hardships ahead.

Swarming media attention. Stares. A lifetime of potent anti-rejection drugs, which initially left Chatelier shaky, sweaty, dizzy and suffering from frequent stomach flu. The dose has been reduced but still leaves Chatelier vulnerable to illnesses.

Chatelier, a former house painter whose forearms were severed in 1996 by an exploding model rocket, underwent his 17-hour transplant surgery in January 2000. Afterward, he felt massive stress from the pressure of seeing himself everywhere in the media.

"I said, 'they gave me a transplant, now people think I'm a circus freak,'" Chatelier recalled.

But he got over it. The former marathon runner says he has an "iron willpower" — so much so that he watched a video of his transplant surgery. Beyond that, he had grown accustomed to stares and cruel remarks.

After the accident, Chatelier wore metal protheses and was taunted with nicknames like "Robocop." After the transplant, some people shook his hand and remarked, "That's not your hand, that's the hand of a dead man."

He learned to tune it out.

"You can't worry about how other people look at you," Chatelier said. "It's not other people who heal us, it's ourselves."

Today, Chatelier is proud of his hands. He makes effusive gestures and constantly flexes his wrists, massages his fingers and cracks his knuckles — "maintenance," he calls it.

In the interview at the mayor's environmental office in Rochefort-sur-Mer in western France, where he works part-time, Chatelier rolled up the cuffs of his big-shouldered blue suit to display his scars — twin lines of buckling skin that circle his mid-forearms.

"Nice work, huh?" he said.

It took Chatelier time after the surgery to say "my hands" instead of "the hands." He needed up to two years for his brain to accept the donation.

"That's when I said, they are part of me, they are mine," he said. "But I still think of my donor ... You can't forget someone who gives his hands, who gives an organ. I think the young woman (who had the face transplant) will never forget the lady who gave part of her face."

Chatelier says the woman has asked to speak with him following her groundbreaking operation Nov. 27. A meeting was arranged. Before the Dec. 25 Christmas holiday, he will travel to a hospital in the southwestern city of Lyon where she is recuperating.

Chatelier, who is still close to Dubernard, dismisses those worries, saying the surgeon had talked to him about plans for a face transplant two years ago and was well prepared.

He also finds no fault in doctors' explanations that the woman's disfigurement — caused by a mauling from her Labrador — was so extensive and debilitating that a transplant was the best solution. Before the operation, she wore a surgical mask in public to hide her injuries. According to her doctors, she also had great trouble eating and speaking.

Chatelier says the first thing he will do is congratulate her.

"I am so happy for her, you can't imagine it," Chatelier said. "I find it beautiful ... I have heard that she is satisfied when she looks in a mirror. That is already a big step."