When Katie Stubblefield's boyfriend broke up with her, in a moment of madness and despair, the pretty teenager snatched her brother Robert's hunting rifle, locked herself in the bathroom and shot herself in the head. When Robert kicked down the door, he discovered his sister with her face 'gone'. The bullet, which was fired upwards as she rested the gun barrel under her chin, had destroyed almost everything in an upwards and inwards triangle, from her chin to between her eyebrows.
The 18-year-old's nose and sinuses, her mouth (apart from the corners of her lips), part of her forehead, and most of her jaw and facial bones were destroyed. Her eyes were so badly damaged she was left with limited vision. Astonishingly, Katie survived. Perhaps even more astonishingly, doctors have been able to give her a new face and the opportunity of a life with some semblance of normality. Three years and 22 operations later, Katie became, at the age of 21, the youngest person ever to receive a full face transplant.
Katie now has the face of a mother of a one-year-old who died of drug overdose. There was a team of 15 specialists who came together to get a new face. They put new skin, blood vessels, bone and nerves on her.
The 31-hour operation began three days after Adrea had died. It involved 11 surgeons and several other specialists who had been practising for months on cadavers, one team removing the face of the donor and the other attaching it to the recipient. Adrea's body on a ventilator to keep her organs and tissues supplied with oxygen and blood was in an adjoining operating room. (Her liver, kidneys, lungs and heart were also being donated.) Dr Gastman made the first incision on the donor's face and, over the course of 16 hours, three to four surgeons bent close over Adrea for their painstaking work. After removing her eyes so the corneas could be donated to another recipient, the surgeons delicately dissected the main nerves controlling the muscles governing facial expression, and the sensory fibres that provide taste to the tongue and to glands allowing salivation and tears. Next, they cut into bone the upper and lower jaw, most of the cheekbones and bones near the eye sockets. All of these would be transferred to Katie. The blood vessels were removed last, to reduce the time the face was without a blood supply, and 'tagged' so they could be matched to what remained of Katie's vessels. Shortly after midnight on the second day of the operation, Adrea's face was finally removed and placed on a surgical tray, floating in preserving solution. Its eye sockets empty, mouth open and the skin turning pale as it was deprived of blood, it resembled a rubber Halloween mask. The face was immediately transferred to the adjacent theatre where surgeons placed it on Katie and immediately started to connect up arteries and veins. As soon as they unclamped Katie's veins and arteries, the blood rushed in and the face 'blushed'. Katie walks down the hospital hallway days after the surgery as she endures a long recovery.
Katie with her parents, who live with her near the clinic, after the operation.