Dr. Maria Siemionow – Leader of the First U.S. Face Transplant

 Dr. Maria Siemionow   Leader of the First U.S. Face Transplant Photo

Dr. Maria Siemionow

“How do you determine the value of a face? Imagine, for a moment, being unable to touch the face of someone you love. Now you are beginning to grasp something of the burden a disfigured person carries,” asserts Dr. Maria Siemionow in her book Transplanting a Face: Notes on a Life in Medicine.

True to her beliefs, Siemionow led a team of doctors in the first U.S. face transplant, a bold and controversial operation. It took twenty-two hours for the doctors to replace 80 percent of the patient’s disfigured face with bone, muscles, nerves, skin and blood vessels taken from a woman who had died hours earlier. The procedure exemplified the courage of Dr. Siemionow in facing the challenge of this enormous medical advance as well as confronting the ethical questions it raised.

As a recipient of America’s Top Doctor Award according to Vitals, Siemionow received her medical degree by the Poznan Medical Academy in 1974 and then earned her PhD in microsurgery. Since 1995 she has been the Director of Plastic Surgery Research and Head of Microsurgery Training at The Cleveland Clinic. She is also the first U.S. physician to receive Institutional Review Board approval for facial transplantation surgery.

Siemionow spent years practicing the procedures on animals and cadavers in order to perfect her technique. It took her four years to choose the right candidate, Connie Culp, a 46 year old whose face was shattered by a gunshot and could no longer breathe on her own, eat solid food or even smile.

Although the procedure is considered groundbreaking, it raises many ethical questions. Unlike operations which involve vital organs such as hearts and livers, transplants of faces are done to improve the quality of life rather than to extend it. Patients run the risk of deadly complications and the medical team must be prepared for the possibility of tissue rejections which could lead to serious problems for the recipient.

For Connie, the transplant has restored her life in countless ways. She can now eat her favorite foods and drink coffee out of a cup instead of receiving nourishment through a tube. Touching her face she can identify her nose and jaw, and most significantly was able to feel her grandson’s kiss for the first time.

“We know there are so many patients in their homes hiding from society because they are afraid to walk to the grocery store, they are afraid to go to the street,” says Siemionow. “Our patient was called names and was humiliated.”

One of the biggest gifts Dr. Maria Sienionow hopes she’s given Connie is the ability to walk down a crowded street and be ignored.


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Wall Street Journal

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