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."
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