Suicide survivor becomes the youngest person in the US to receive a face transplant

Suicide survivor becomes the youngest person in the US to receive a face transplant

A woman who attempted suicide has become the youngest person in US history to receive a face transplant.

Katie Stubblefield was just 18 years old when she tried to kill herself, but four years later she has a new face and her journey has been shared with National Geographic magazine.

The publication - which sent a journalist and photographers to follow her - has made her exhaustive 31-hour reconstructive surgery the subject of their September 2018 issue, entitled "The Story of a Face".

The now-22-year-old shot herself in the face in her brother's bathroom in Oxford, Mississippi in March 2014 after going through a string of health problems and discovering her boyfriend had been texting another girl. Placing the barrel of his .308-caliber hunting rifle below her chin, she pulled the trigger with the intention of ending her life, yet instead miraculously survived.

Although, against all odds, she had lived, but the teenager had lost much of her face - including her nose, some of her forehead and jawbone. In addition, she had brain injuries and significant damage to her eyes. Brian Gastman, Gastman, a plastic surgeon at Cleveland Clinic who led Katie's surgery and oversaw her care, claimed that, in his 27 years of training and practice, this was one of the worst face traumas he’d ever encountered.

A medical team in Mississippi stabilised Katie and she was later operated on in Memphis, Tennessee, where doctors had patched what was left of her face. More than five weeks later, she arrived in Cleveland, Ohio at a facility that was performing pioneering transplant procedures.

Initially, her operation was intended to be more of a partial procedure, but the decision was made to use more of the donor's face to improve the match and Katie was eventually added to the transplant list.

"I had no clue what a face transplant was," Katie told National Geographic. "When my parents helped explain everything to me, I was very excited to get a face again and to have function again."

After two donors fell through, her time finally came. The transplanted face came from Adrea Schneider, who had died from a drug overdose in 2017, with the final decision being made by Adrea's grandmother, Sandra Bennington.

Katie underwent the invasive 31-hour procedure in May 2017, this being nearly three years, 22 reconstructive surgeries - including using her thigh and 3D printing to help reconstruct her jaw - and psychological evaluations after her suicide attempt.

Since the operation, the young woman has had three revision surgeries and further operations are also likely in order to improve the appearance and functionality of the face. Furthermore, she has difficulty speaking because of the damage inflicted on her mouth and she will take medication for the rest of her life in order to reduce the risk of transplant rejection.

Despite her journey being not over yet, the 22-year-old has reportedly remained upbeat and now wants to use her experiences to help others. She plans to go to college and is considering a career in counselling, wishing to speak to teenagers about suicide and the value of life, saying: "So many people have helped me; now I want to help other people."

Katie's story has been heralded as "the ultimate second chance" by her surgeon. "My first wish for Katie is to be happy," Dr. Gastman said. "That's number one, but beyond that, I'd like her to have some level of normalcy. Then, she can do all that and become a spokeswoman for so many aspects - for how to be strong in the face of adversity and not to make a singular decision dictate who you are."

You can read Katie's incredible story in full in National Geographic. If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal feelings, depression, or just loneliness and uncertainty, then please don't hesitate to contact either the Samaritans (116 123) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).