Suicide survivor gets a ‘second chance’ after historic face transplant

Katie Stubblefield, a 21-year-old woman is featured as the cover story of National Geographic’s September Issue. “The Story of a Face,” the magazine’s cover story, is based from the life of Katie, a survivor of a suicide attempt, who is now the youngest person in the United States who receive a groundbreaking face transplant.

Four years ago, nothing seemed to be going right for Katie.  She was betrayed by the person she trusted and loved the most, which resulted in a bad break-up; She underwent a medical surgery due to her chronic gastrointestinal problem; and her mother, Alesia, was fired from the school she taught for how many years.

With all of these problems coming at her all at once, Katie lost her motivation to live. And so on March 25, 2014, the sound of a gunfire echoed in the household of the Stubblefields.

Katie who was only 18-years-old then, used her brother’s, Robert’s hunting rifle and shot herself in the face.

According to the incident report, the bullet fired from the rifle penetrated her forehead, nose, sinuses, jaw bones, and other important organs. The doctors who quickly responded to save her life tried their best to cover her facial wound using a tissue grafted from her abdomen, however they failed. Her wounds are so bad her brain is exposed when they arrived at the Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Brian Gatsman, the surgeon in care of Katie said that the bullet fired from the hunting rifle also damaged Katie’s hormones, sodium levels, and as well as the frontal lobe function of the brain.

“It’s the worst wound that I’ve ever seen of its kind,” One of the doctors overseeing Katie’s case said. “The only thing I can think of that would really give her functional life again is a face transplant.”

When Katie was informed about having a face transplant, she was baffled and stunned.

“I had no clue what a face transplant was,” Katie shared in an interview. “When my parents helped explain everything to me, I was very excited to get a face again and to have function again.”

A Face transplant is the medical process of replacing all or parts of a person’s face with a donated tissues, skin, bone, nerves, and blood vessels coming from a deceased donor. For Katie’s case, her Face transplant included the scalp, forehead, upper and lower eyelids, eye sockets, nose, upper cheeks, upper jaw and half lower jaw, upper and lower teeth, partial facial nerves, muscled and skin- a full Face transplant.

It took Katie a year to find a suitable donor match in the body of the 31-year-old Adrea Schneider. Before her operation began, Katie posed for a picture, making a gesture that showed her excitement for the new face she would have.

31 hours later, Katie’s surgery completed the 40 Face transplants that occurred in the world, and the third to happen at the operating room of Cleveland Clinic.

“I am able to touch my face now, and it feels amazing,” Katie shared after her successful Face transplant.

 “This journey has been four steps forward, two steps backward, but always progress.” Robb, Katie’s supportive and doting father expressed.

After 9 months and 22 days since her full Face transplant, Katie and her father are having fun dancing with each other inside Cleveland’s Tudor Arms Hotel.

“Before this, I never spent so much time with my parents,” Katie admitted. Now she is very thankful for the unconditional love and support her parents and family showered her with to save her life.

“I’m definitely taking many, many daily steps,” Katie said. True enough, Katie is attending her physical and occupational therapy, and busied herself with speech therapy and Braille lessons to make her life fully functional once again.

“Life is precious, and life is beautiful,” Katie said, sharing how much her loving family gave her hope and made her faith stronger.

For some, National Geographic’s ‘The Story of A Face’ can come off as a sad story, but Katie’s story is a story of redemption. It is an incredible story about a woman with a loving and supportive family. It is an inspiring story of a woman, who once wanted to give-up on life but now sees how beautiful and precious life is.

It is a story about a once hopeless woman who is now full of faith and hope.

Photos | National Geographic

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