Monday, September 10, 2018

National Geographic's amazing journey with youngest face transplant recipient

A surgical resident carefully cradles Katie Stubblefield's head to keep it still in the intensive care unit of the Cleveland Clinic after the 31-hour face transplant featured in "The Story of a Face" on the cover of the September issue of National Geographic. | Photograph by Lynn Johnson/National Geographic
     Regular readers know that I've occasionally written about the challenges confronting those with faces far from the norm, particularly in "Face Fear," written for Mosaic in 2015. I wanted to share this story because it seemed an important step in the mass media—assuming such a thing still exists—portraying the disfigured. Given that most magazines meticulously photoshop already beautiful models to give their newsstand sales and extra twist, I thought it particularly bold of the National Geographic that they put Katie on its cover, and wanted to draw further attention to he issue.

     On March 25, 2014, Katie Stubblefield found texts from another girl on her boyfriend's phone. She confronted him and he broke up with her. Distraught, the Mississippi teenager took her brother's hunting rifle, jammed the barrel under her chin and pulled the trigger.
     "Gone were part of her forehead; her nose and sinuses; her mouth, except for the corners of her lips; and much of her mandible and maxilla, the bones that make up the jaws and front of the face," Joanna Connors writes in an extraordinary article, "Katie's New Face," in the September National Geographic magazine.
     Last year Stubblefield became the 40th recipient of a face transplant and, at 21, the youngest ever. 
     First surgeons had to save her life, had to find a way to cover the hole blown in the middle of her face. They built a crude nose and upper lip from thigh tissue, a chin and lower lip from her Achilles tendon. Scanning her sister's jaw as a model, they built Katie a jaw out of titanium.  
Used with permission of National Geographic

     The result was a noseless, lipless mask, criss-crossed with deep scars that Katie playfully nicknamed "Shrek."
     She went on the transplant list. After a year, in May, 2017, a donor face became available. The operation, at the Cleveland Clinic, the nation's center for face transplant surgery, took 31-hours, the first 16 carefully detaching the donor face. There is an extraordinary, fold-out photo in the National Geographic showing surgeons gathered around the disembodied face, hands folded reverently, gazing down at it.
     Attaching the face took another 15 hours, the cheeks of Katie's new face flushing as surgeons connected major arteries.
     The editors of National Geographic chose to put Katie, pre-surgery, on its cover, in profile, holding flowers, which is where I noticed her at a newsstand on my way through O'Hare last week. I flipped through the magazine, asking myself, "Do I really want this in the house?" I put it back. At Denver, I saw it a second time, and passed again.
     Back at Chicago, I bought a copy, wondering about the reaction to a story that some readers, editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg admitted, "may find very difficult to look at."

To continue reading, click here.


  1. Thanks, Neil, for drawing attention to this story. I read it in National Geographic about a week ago (By the way, a subscription works out to about a dollar a copy). I got a little bogged down in the details and missed the point that getting used to unusual, even deformed faces is the first step to accepting the "monstrosities" as normal, fully functioning people just like ourselves.


  2. Well, that part wasn't actually IN the story. It was what I brought to the table. Otherwise, I'm just a conduit.

  3. Very uncomfortable subject, I understand your initial reluctance, but was it about your family seeing it or were you somewhat disinclined to take it all in yourself? Seeing the Civil War and first World War photos of facial deformities was unsettling to me, enough that a sampling sufficed and I wouldn't seek the volumes of these pictures. I've had a partial experience in this area, two facial surgeries to remove malignant melanomas. They remove large pieces of flesh, wide margins included to be sure of complete excision, but postpone closing the wound until the lab confirms success. My first experience was shocking. Told to remove the bandage and clean the wound several days after surgery I was surprised at the size of the crater in my cheek. Three cotton pieces like those your dentist wedges between your cheek and gums, filled a cavity the size of three stacked Kennedy half dollar coins. Seven years later another procedure took a bigger chunk, and more, as the pathologists recommended a second bite this time. While family and friends reacted to the gnarly stitched wounds, they never saw the gaping evidence of what had been taken. I have no problem with the scars, but the sight of the large holes was the unsettling thing. I documented the stitches and recovery of my second round, but couldn't bring myself to photograph the raw state while awaiting the stitches. I can only imagine the unfortunate war vets and Katie's experience, but I do know she will never be troubled by the scars from her transplant surgery. Thanks to the doctors who do this work and all the caregivers who endure the uncomfortable aspects of illness and injury treatment. they are heroes.

    1. No, the boys are gone to school, and my wife wouldn't look at it. It was just something I'd know was there. Though, to prove my own point, after reading it it didn't bother me in the slightest. Shelved now.

    2. I'm also prone to skin cancer, luckily for me the less severe kind, and my dermatologist has removed several small portions of my face from time to time. One tiny cancer in the middle of my forehead morphed into a lot larger scar but by no means as disfiguring as those you live with. I tell people it's my prefrontal lobotomy scar.


    3. Navy films or TV shows about real surgery make me uncomfortable, and I will probably experience that when I read Katie's story. But I feel obligated, if she can get through it, so can I.


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