Ever-evolving medical technology is enabling groundbreaking research and procedures like complete facial transplants. But for a couple of strangers in Massachusetts, the procedure has given them much more.
After Susan Whitman Helfgot lost her husband in 2009, the widow was surprised to learn that his familiar face would help a man in dire need. James Maki, now 61, had suffered a tragic accident that left him severely deformed and was looking for a miracle to help heal his wounds. That miracle became Helfgot's husband, Joseph.
Just one month after the revolutionary procedure put Joseph's face on James, the two families met for the first time. Only 13 of these new procedures have been done the world over, and recent a meeting between James and Susan marked the only time a face donor's family meeting the recipient.
"I had planned to remain anonymous," Susan told the Post-Gazette, "but once it became public knowledge that Joseph was the donor, there was a lot of contact with the media."
Before their meeting, Susan says she wasn't worried about seeing her deceased husband's image on James. "I wasn't expecting a lot there, except to see a man who'd had major surgery," she said. Photographs of Mr. Helfgot and of Mr. Maki before and after the surgery also drive home the point that none of the faces looks too much like the other.
Now, 18 months after the operation, she says the only recognizable feature is her husband's nose. "The nose is the same nose, but then again, how different are noses really? I mean, if I passed Jim on the street and didn't know he had Joseph's nose, I wouldn't say, 'You know, that nose is really familiar.' "
Because a transplanted face is linked to a different brain, Susan says face transplant recipients don't look like the donor. "Many of us have had the experience of saying a child looks 'just like Uncle Harry.' In fact, he may not look anything like Uncle Harry, but his expression is exactly like Uncle Harry's. You've got all these nerves that are orchestrating your facial movement, so when we look at each other, a lot of what we see is not just that physical face but the expression that's being made."
James, on the other hand, says he's never given it a second thought. "I wouldn't even bother comparing it to how I looked before," he said. "This is my face, and it'll be my face for the rest of my life."
Though he's come a long way, James has a long way to go for full recovery. According to the Post-Gazette, he has no lower teeth and will get dentures to fill out his lower jaw. Surgeons will then remove extra tissue from his cheeks in another procedure. Though he says some small children find his image a bit scary, his exposure from local news appearances have made him well-known around Boston and adults will often approach him to tell him he looks great.
Before the transplant, James' doctors estimated that his face was only "25 percent normal." Once he undergoes his final revisions within the next year, they expect him to be "85 to 90 percent normal" as he develops connective tissue with his new face.
In the meantime, Susan has co-authored a book about the unlikely circumstances that bore their friendship, "The Match: Complete Strangers, a Miracle Transplant, Two Lives Transformed," which was published this month.