The world’s first eyeball and partial-face transplant has been declared a success. Although doctors are still uncertain whether he will regain his vision, the patient believes the groundbreaking surgery has given him a "second chance at life".
Aaron James, a 46-year-old military veteran from Arkansas, suffered from a 7,200-volt electric shock while working as a high-voltage lineman in June 2021 when his face accidentally touched a live wire. Against the odds, he managed to survive, but he lost his nose, mouth, left eye, and left arm.
Within two months of his life-changing injury, doctors started working on a plan to carry out a face transplant. When his left eye was removed due to intense pain, the surgeons purposely cut the optic nerve as close to the eyeball as possible to keep open the option of a transplant – despite such a feat never being attempted.
Earlier this year, they took the bold step to achieve just that. On May 27, James underwent a 21-hour surgery involving a team of over 140 surgeons, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, led by Eduardo D. Rodriguez, director of the Face Transplant Program at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
Just over five months after the surgery, the team has announced that the pioneering procedure appears to be a success. James’ recovery time has been incredibly quick for a face transplant recipient. Furthermore, the eyeball has settled in nicely and is now receiving a direct blood flow.
“The progress we’ve seen with the eye is exceptional, especially considering that we have a viable cornea paired with a retina showing great blood flow five months after the procedure. This far exceeds our initial expectations, given our initial hope was that the eye would survive at least 90 days,” Bruce E. Gelb, a transplant surgeon at the NYU Langone Transplant Institute, said in a statement.
“We will continue to monitor, and I am excited to see what else we may learn over time.”
For now, James has no vision in the transplanted eye and it remains purely cosmetic. However, his doctors are regularly carrying out electroretinography tests to assess the electrical response of the retina to light.
“We’re now crossing into the frontier of the central nervous system. Whatever happens next allows the opportunity for various methods to try to enhance the remaining aspects of the retina, whether it be through growth factors, stem cells, or a device that can pick up the signals and then bypass things along that optic nerve pathway,” explained Steven L. Galetta, Professor and Chair of Neurology at NYU Langone.
As for James, he’s happy with the results. His ongoing rehabilitation has seen him regain his sense of smell and taste, which he is aiming to fully utilize later this month while enjoying his first Thanksgiving meal since the accident.
“I’m grateful beyond words for the donor and his family, who have given me a second chance at life during their own time of great difficulty. I hope the family finds solace in knowing that part of the donor lives on with me,” commented James.
“I will also forever be thankful to Dr Rodriguez and his team for changing my life. My family and I wouldn’t have been able to navigate this difficult journey without their expertise and support. Our hope is that my story can serve as inspiration for those facing severe facial and ocular injuries.”