To the left is a picture of 17-year-old Katie Stubblefield taken about eight months before she attempted suicide. (The Stubbleton clan in a recent photo). On the right is Katie, at 22 years old, a year and a month after her operation.
“(Photo by Martin Schoeller) Katie, at age 21, received her first face transplant in the United States. As far as we know, she is the fortieth person in the world to get a new face transplant. All images are courtesy of National Geographic.
The following is a condensed version of a story by Joanna Connors, a reporter for the Plain Dealer, that originally appeared in a National Geographic magazine. Read the full report at natgeo.com/face.
CHICAGO, Illinois – There’s a face on a surgical tray, eyes closed and unseeing, mouth open in astonishment. A 31-year-old woman was declared legally and medically dead three days before the delicate work of removing her face from her body began in Cleveland Clinic’s Operating Room 19. A woman, age 21, who has been waiting for a new face for over three years, will soon receive it.
The Shocked Expression Settles Into Silence For A While
Doctors, residents, and nurses go silent as they stare in awe at it, while clinic workers move in with cameras like unusually polite paparazzi. Without enough blood, the face begins to look lifeless. It’s starting to resemble a death mask from the 19th century with every passing second.
Expert plastic surgeon Frank Papay carefully lifts the tray with his gloved hands and makes his way to OR 20 where Katie Stubblefield is waiting.
Katie is the youngest person in the United States to receive a face transplant. Hers will be the third transplant performed at the clinic and the fortieth in the world; as one of the most extensive, she will be used as a research subject for the rest of her life.
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Papay is filled with awe at the sight of the face he bears. Amazing, he thinks, that some people would donate organs such as a heart or liver, or even a face, to help another human being. He offers an internal prayer of gratitude before releasing the face into its next existence.
Lost In The Bullet’s Path
Katie was only 18 when she suffered facial disfigurement. She was beautiful, with a wide grin and clear skin that belonged on the cover of Seventeen. She ignored the compliments because she didn’t believe she was attractive. Katie’s mom, Alesia, says her daughter has a big heart for others but is incredibly critical of herself.
According to Olivia McCay, Katie was courageous and hilarious, but she put an unnecessary amount of stress on herself. She aspired to excel at a wide variety of activities she had never tried before, as Olivia put it. She aspired to excel in the classroom. She was constantly buried in her books, putting in long hours of study.
As Katie progressed through high school, her family relocated twice. Her family uprooted from Lakeland, Florida, and settled in Owensboro, Kentucky when she was a sophomore in high school.
A year later, they uprooted once more, this time to Oxford, Mississippi, where she had just begun to feel at home. Both of her parents, the Rev. Robb and the late Mrs. Robb, were teachers at a Christian elementary school.
In school, Katie found love with a fellow student. They began discussing the possibility of getting married. “I think she was ready to have some stability and some consistency,” Olivia said after the relocations.
Katie had already undergone surgery and dealt with ongoing stomach pain. She’d had her gallbladder removed in January of her senior year, and her appendix the year before. The Stubblefield claims that two months later, Alesia was fired from her position at the school without any warning from the headmaster. Katie felt betrayed by them.
Katie then discovered her boyfriend had been texting another girl on March 25, 2014. Her relatives claim that he dumped her after she confronted him.
He Said, “I Don’t Know What Else To Do, Short Of A Face Transplant”
Katie was flown to Cleveland, Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic five weeks later, in early May 2014. Both Robb and Alesia traveled with her to Cleveland and stayed there.
Not long after Katie’s stay in Memphis, the chance to move her to Cleveland Clinic arose, where she might receive a face transplant. Katie’s primary plastic surgeon and face transplant team member,
Dr. Brian Gastman was introduced to the family on a Sunday morning. Robb said he was a “ball of energy” who had brought a 3D model of Katie’s head to their meeting.
“I can now see what’s going on in my kid’s mind. Everything. This bone structure and the wound area. The whole thing was very interesting.
Further research revealed that face transplantation was ultimately planned, but that it was “way down the road somewhere,” as Robb put it. Many steps would need to be taken in advance to get there, including reconstructive surgery on Katie’s jaw using bone from her leg and a metal prosthesis.
Katie’s life was touched by dozens of doctors and specialists over the years as she underwent numerous additional operations. Robb and Alesia’s list of nutritionists is exhaustive. Physicians and other medical professionals treat physical impairments. Endocrinologists. Experts in treating infectious diseases. Neurosurgeons.
Ophthalmologists. Aid workers Bioethicists. Psychiatrists. Anesthesiologists. Dentists. Pharmacists. Experts in the treatment of the body’s internal organs. surgeons specialize in operations on the blood vessels. Countless nurses in the dozens. …and cosmetic surgeons, of course.
Katie Stubblefield And Her Inspiring Story
Speaking to ABC News According to Katie’s dad, Robb Stubblefield, she was a very motivated high school student. As early as age four, she was already a dedicated soccer player. But as senior year of high school drew to a close and college applications were being submitted, Katie’s life took a dangerous turn.
Katie’s senior year of high school was one of the most difficult of her life. The appendectomy had caused serious health issues for the graduating high school student. Katie’s parents, who were both teachers at her high school, were recently laid off. Finally, on March 25, 2014, Katie’s boyfriend dumped her.
According to the report, an enraged and distraught Katie skipped class and headed straight to her brother Robert’s place. Katie’s mother, Alesia, was promptly notified by Robert that her daughter had left school early. Robert thought he heard a door slam as Alesia walked through. They entered the house to find the bathroom door locked and Katie inside.
Where Is Katie Stubblefield Now?
After her operation, she underwent intensive rehabilitation in an effort to regain as much function as possible. Katie told Nightline that she finally felt whole again after touching her face with her hand.
She claimed she would do anything to regain her facial appearance. At the age of 23, Katie is still getting used to her new nose, lips, and perspective, as reported in The Nightline. Katie’s eyesight is still impaired, but it’s getting better.
Apparently, the family is still calling the Ronald McDonald House their home. Katie’s parents, Rob and Alesia, manage all of her care, from therapy to the rejection of drugs.
A source close to Katie told The Nightline that she still has her sense of humor despite everything that has happened. The young lady does not have an online profile at the moment.
Katie said to the Cleveland Clinic Ethics Committee in a meeting to make sure she was ready for her face transplant surgery, “I can’t go backward. As difficult as it is, I must press on. Katie’s gunshot wound was so severe, it could have easily ended her life.