A young man’s life was shattered in an instant when he fell asleep while driving home after working the night shift at his job in Clark, New Jersey at the age of 19.
Joseph DiMeo was left with third-degree burns over 80% of his body when his car rolled over and exploded into flames.
DiMeo endured approximately 20 reconstructive surgeries and his life changing injuries included the amputation of his fingertips and no lips or eyelids which hindered his vision and daily activities, greatly reducing his capacity to live an independent and functional life.
It became clear that conventional surgery would not be sufficient for DiMeo to regain full vision or use of his hands and in 2019 DiMeo’s medical team began preparing for transplant surgery which would be the world’s first face and double hand transplant.
He had his first clinical appointment with Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, a Helen L. Kimmel professor of reconstructive plastic surgery where it was noted that his face was completely scarred, he had no remnants of ears, his eyelids had melted away and Rodriguesz described his hands akin to mittens with the ends of the fingers amputated.
‘He was not capable of using his hands and was completely dependent on care from his parents,’ Rodriguez said.
In October, 2019 DiMeo was placed on the transplant waiting list. With the extent of his history of transfusions and grafts he was given only about a 6% chance of finding the perfect donor match.
However, nine months into the search a compatible donor was located in Delaware.
The now 22-year-old underwent the risky procedures that took 23 hours and a team of Doctors last August.
‘It was a long couple of days,’ Rodriguez said. ‘I had the great pleasure of bringing (his parents) to see their son following the transformation.’
Experts have said that it appears that the surgery which took place at NYU Langone Health was a success, however they caution that it will take some time to say for sure.
‘I knew it would be baby steps all the way,’ DiMeo recently told the Associated Press. ‘You’ve got to have a lot of motivation, a lot of patience. And you’ve got to stay strong through everything.’
DiMeo will have to take medications for the rest of his life to avoid the transplant being rejected by his body as well as ongoing rehabilitation to gain function and sensation in his new face and hands.
He has learned to dress and feed himself since receiving the transplants and is now learning how to smile, blink and raise the eyebrows on his new face.
Surgeons have completed at least 18 face transplants and 3 hand transplants worldwide according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) which oversees the United States transplant system.
However combining a face and double hand transplant has only been attempted twice before.
The first surgery was in 2009 on a patient in Paris, who died about a month later from complications. The second was on a woman who had been mauled by a chimpanzee but doctors in Boston had to remove the transplanted hands a few days after the surgery.
DiMeo hopes that going public with his story will help others.
‘I just felt like everyone needs to know about this, said DiMeo at a news conference Wednesday at NYU Langone. ‘I hope that my motivation inspires other people to get back on their feet and not look down in the dumps … You’ve got to work hard to change things, and you can’t give up.’