Saving Face: The Transplant Surgeon

As the nation’s first face transplant patient goes public, her doctor speaks.

By Melissa Schorr
Face To Face by Maria Siemionow, MD, PhD
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Kaplan Publishing

This is no facelift.  The woman who had the first face transplant in the nation has gone public. Here, the surgeon who changed Connie Culp’s life talks about how she chose Culp, why she does this radical surgery—and what it’s really about.

Maria Siemionow was in her 30s when she first imagined transplanting a human face. Over the next 20 years, as a microsurgeon in hospitals from Turkey to Finland to the United States, she saw hundreds of victims of war, fire, crime, cancer, and accidents who were missing eyelids, noses, jaws, or lips. A few had lost every feature — they were faceless. "You have no idea what these people even look like," she warns the rest of us — including critics — "because you’ve never seen them. They don’t leave their homes."
This past December at the Cleveland Clinic, Siemionow, 58, led a team of doctors in a standard-setting, near-total face transplant, the first in the U.S. Her patient, who has chosen not to identify herself, had already undergone more than 30 surgeries but couldn’t breathe without a tube or eat solid food. She wanted to be able to blink, to smell, to smile, and to be near children without terrifying them, Siemionow says. And those hopes may be fulfilled. Just weeks after the surgery, a doctor held a stick of gum under the patient’s new nose, and she could smell the mint. In February, she was able to leave the hospital. [Editors’ note: The patient, Connie Culp, recently went public with her story. See updates and video here.]

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