On March 24 2014, Katie Stubblefield, 18, had a failed suicide attempt that would bring her not only pain but the loss of her entire face.
Due to circumstances beyond her control, Stubblefield would lock herself in the bathroom of her brother’s home and shoot herself under the chin with her brother Robert’s .308-caliber hunting rifle.
Robert found her instantly and recalled the memory, saying the first thing he noticed was that “her face was gone.”
According to National Geographic, “The bullet was a pernicious thief. To get a measure of what it stole from Katie, hold your hands up to your face, palms out, your thumbs touching beneath your chin and your index fingers touching between your eyebrows. Your hands are framing the part of Katie’s face she lost.”
The report continues: “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. Her eyes remained, but they were askew and badly damaged.”
Stubblefield was first operated on in Memphis, Tenn. and saved against all odds. The doctors ended up having to try grafting skin from her abdomen to help close the gaping wound, though unsuccessfully.
Stubblefield was a small girl and the doctors who first operated on her were worried they wouldn’t have enough tissues to work with to reconstruct what was basically her entire face; Stubblefield was only 105 pounds.
Brian Gastman, the first clinic doctor to see Katie said in his 27 years of practice Stubblefield’s injuries were “one of the worst face traumas he’d ever encountered. Beyond the wound to her face, she had traumatic brain injury from the bullet’s concussive force to her frontal lobe, optic nerve, and pituitary gland.”
It took a team of 15 specialists to save Stubblefield’s life.
Over the course of many surgeries the doctors were able to stabilize Stubblefield and patched what was left of her face. Stubblefield had never seen this face, but she had come to know it by touch, she calls it “the second of her young life, Shrek.” Throughout her trauma, Stubblefield kept a bright optimistic disposition.
Stubblefield was on a transplant waiting list for three years until a donor came along, Andrea Schneider, a 31-year-old woman and organ donor who had recently passed away. She was a match.
May 4, 2017 was the day Stubblefield was told she was set for a full transplant. At 7:30 a.m., 11 surgeons gathered in OR-20, as the donor was wheeled into OR-19. Sixteen hours into a transplant operation at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, surgeons finish the intricate task of removing the face from an organ donor.
National Geographic reports that “ Katie will be the youngest person to receive a face transplant in the United States. Her transplant, the clinic’s third and the 40th known in the world, will be one of the most extensive, making her a lifelong subject in the study of this still experimental surgery.”
The surgery didn’t come without its hiccups though, they did run into some complications. For example, the donor’s face was larger than Stubblefield’s and her scar tissue took up space. There wasn’t enough room for all of the donor’s muscles and vessels and the skin tone wasn’t a match, which would cause the transplant to stand out.
“The surgeons conferred, some of them stopping to examine the 3D models that had been made from CT scans of the two heads,” the National Geographic report states.
“A majority thought they should give Katie the donor’s full face. It was clear that it would look a lot better. A few on the team argued that more tissue and skin might mean she would have to take higher doses of the strong anti rejection drugs she’d be on for the rest of her life.”
It continues: “Worse, in the case of a rejection so acute that her face had to be removed, she wouldn’t have enough tissue on her body for reconstructive surgery.”
Stubblefield’s parents were brought into the fold and eventually decided Katie would want the entire face so that’s what the surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic went ahead with.
At 3 p.m., 31 hours after surgery on the donor started, the surgeons finished suturing the top layer of skin, attaching the entire face. After the surgery was complete Stubblefield’s family came into see her in the intensive care unit and were amazed at their daughter and little sister’s third face in just over three years.
Her brother’s first words were about the new feature Stubblefield acquired a small dimple on her chin “ like Kirk Douglas.”
After the many months of physical therapy and various revision surgeries are completed Stubblefield says she intends to pick up right where she left off starting with college.
Her next goal is to obtain a career in counseling. She says “So many people have helped me; now I want to help other people.” She hopes to speak to teenagers about suicide and the value of life, but for now she is focused on her recovery.