Katie Stubblefield, the youngest American to undergo a face transplant, has a new lease on life.
Stubblefield’s journey is the subject of the cover story of National Geographic‘s September issue, “The Story of a Face,” and a National Geographic documentary.
In 2014, Stubblefield, then 18, attempted suicide after watching her mother Alesia lose her job; finding text messages to another girl on her boyfriend’s phone; and having health issues, including gastrointestinal problems and gallbladder and appendix surgeries.
Stubblefield survived, but her gunshot wound damaged much of her face.
Stubblefield does not remember her suicide attempt. “I never thought of doing that ever before, and so on hearing about it, I just didn’t know how to handle it,” she told National Geographic. “I felt so guilty that I had put my family through such pain. I felt horrible.”
She ended up at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where 15 specialists worked with her. “It was not great,” Brian Gastman, a doctor who treated Stubblefield, told the magazine. “Her brain was basically exposed, and I mean, we’re talking seizures and infections and all kinds of problems. Forget the face transplant; we’re talking about just being alive.”
According to CNN, 11 surgeons conducted the 31-hour face transplant in May 2017 when Stubblefield was 21. Stubblefield’s face transplant — from Adrea Bennington, who died of a drug overdose — is reportedly the 40th of its kind in the world.
Her father Robb commented, according to CNN, “You take it for granted, the different components of our faces — the bone, the tissue, the muscle, everything — but when it’s gone, you recognize the big need. Then when you receive a transplant, you’re so thankful.”
Stubblefield, who has had three follow-up surgeries, will remain on immunosuppressive drugs since transplant rejection remains a risk. She studies Braille, sees a speech therapist, and goes to therapy. She wants to attend college online and raise awareness of suicide. “So many people have helped me; now I want to help other people,” she told National Geographic.
Mind & Body – Health.com