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Man becomes 1st African American, oldest patient to receive face transplant

Man becomes 1st African American and oldest patient to receive full face transplant
Robert Chelsea was left severely disfigured after being hit by a drunk driver in 2013. After years of waiting for the perfect match to his skin tone, he now has a brand-new face after a history-making surgery by Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Robert Chelsea was left severely disfigured after being hit by a drunk driver in 2013, but that all changed this summer.

In July, he became the world’s first African American patient to receive a face transplant. At 68, he is also the oldest patient to receive the surgery.

Chelsea looks nearly unrecognizable in a series of incredible before-and-after shots shared by Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The 19-hour surgery involved a team of over 45 physicians, nurses, anesthesiologists, residents and research fellows. Chelsea is one of only around 50 face transplants completed worldwide, according to Time.

READ MORE: First Canadian face transplant: Man doing well after life-changing surgery [2018]
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Nine of those transplants took place at Brigham Hospital. Only 15 have ever been completed in the United States.

Six years ago, the Los Angeles resident pulled over on the side of the highway near Long Beach, Calif. to deal with car troubles.

Moments later, he and his car were struck by a drunk driver, causing his car to erupt into flames. Chelsea was left with 60 per cent of his body and face burned.

Chelsea’s car was hit by a drunk driver, causing a fire and leading to severe burns that left him significantly disfigured.
Chelsea’s car was hit by a drunk driver, causing a fire and leading to severe burns that left him significantly disfigured. Lightchaser Photography/J. Kiely Jr.

When Chelsea was first offered a new face, his concern was that the person’s skin was much fairer than his, Time reports. He said he didn’t want to become “a totally different looking person.”

So he waited, and a year later, he found an almost perfect match to his own skin tone. The wait was much longer than a typical face-transplant placement.

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“Morning by morning, new versions [of me] unfold,” Chelsea told Time on the day he was discharged from the hospital. “[But] I feel like myself.”

He joins a short roster of two Black patients, including himself, who’ve received any such surgery at all.

READ MORE: Minnesota woman meets transplant recipient who received her late husband’s face [2017]

Another Black patient in Paris received a partial face transplant in 2007.

“May God bless the donor and his family who chose to donate this precious gift and give me a second chance,” Chelsea said in a statement shared by the hospital. “Words cannot describe how I feel.”

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“I am overwhelmed with gratitude and feel very blessed to receive such an amazing gift.”

He spent an entire month recovering in hospital before he was allowed to go home to L.A.

After the accident, Chelsea spent four months in the hospital trying to stay alive. He’d had 18 surgeries before his transplant, including skin grafts and abdominal operations.

Burned firefighter feeling normal again 1-year after rare face transplant
Burned firefighter feeling normal again 1-year after rare face transplant

Dr. Victor Joe, according to Time, called Chelsea “one of the sickest patients we’ve had.” He lost various extremities — like most of his lips and some fingers — due to blood pressure medication that redirected blood flow to his heart.

In a statement shared with the public following his history-making surgery, Chelsea said: “This experience has been an incredible journey for me, filled at times with many challenges.”

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“Today, however, I am thrilled to say that I’m on the road to recovery thanks to the incredible team of doctors and staff at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the love and support of my family and friends, and my unwavering faith.”

Chelsea is expected to regain about 60 per cent of facial motor function within a year, including the ability to eat, smile and speak normally, according to the hospital.

meaghan.wray@globalnews.ca