It has now been more than a year since 22-year-old Katie Stubblefield underwent a 31-hour operation to give her a new face. In the time since receiving her full-face transplant – adding her to the ranks of fewer than 25 such recipients worldwide – at the Cleveland Clinic, Katie has undergone three major revision surgeries and has been hard at work with physical, occupational, and speech therapy. The nerves connecting her brain to the newly introduced facial muscles are still growing, so she struggles to move many features. Her tongue and mouth, which lost so much of its native muscle and nerves when Katie attempted suicide by a rifle shot under the chin at age 18, are still not working well. She will need to take intensive regimens of immunosuppressant medications for the rest of her life, or until a breakthrough in anti-rejection science is made.
Yet overall, the young woman’s story is one of rousing success in the field of cutting-edge medicine and of the amazing human connections formed between physicians and patients. An in-depth look at the journey leading up to Katie’s face transplant, as well as her long road to recovery, is featured in National Geographic’s September issue and in a new documentary.
"I am able to touch my face now, and it feels amazing," Katie said in the video.
"You take it for granted, the different components of our faces – the bone, the tissue, the muscle, everything – but when it's gone, you recognize the big need,” her father, Robb Stubblefield, added. “Then when you receive a transplant, you're so thankful."
Five weeks after Katie nearly died from the gunshot wound, she arrived at the Cleveland Clinic in dire need of reconstructive surgery. A tissue graft from her abdomen had been performed by physicians in Memphis, Tennessee, where she was transferred after receiving emergency care in her home state of Mississippi, but this attempt to cover the gaping wound on her face had failed.
Plastic surgeon Dr Brian Gastman, the first clinic doctor to see Katie and the man who would go on to lead her transplant procedure, recalled to NatGeo that he was initially only concerned with stabilizing Katie, and he worried that even if that went to plan, there wouldn’t be enough tissue available for corrective surgeries due to her small size.