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21-Year-Old Woman Becomes Youngest Face Transplant Recipient—And She’s Opening Up About Her Ordeal

In March 2014, 18-year-old Katie Stubblefield tried to take her own life. Though she survived, she was left with a severe facial gunshot wound, leaving her completely unrecognizable. Three years later, with dreams of becoming a counseller to other teenagers going through the same trials that led to her disfigurement, Stubblefield became the youngest person in history to receive a face transplant.

Katie is featured in the August cover story for National Geographic.

She told the magazine she remembered almost nothing about her suicide attempt, which came after several teenage traumas including a rough break-up and a series of “gastrointestinal surgeries.”

I never thought of doing that ever before, and so on hearing about it, I just didn’t know how to handle it. I felt so guilty that I had put my family through such pain. I felt horrible.

Only 40 face transplants have ever been attempted, the first in France in 2005. The goal of Katie’s surgery was to “restore her facial structure and her ability to chew, breathe, and swallow on her own.” The transplant took 31 hours, and involved the “transplantation of the scalp, the forehead, upper and lower eyelids, eye sockets, nose, upper cheeks, upper jaw and half of lower jaw, upper teeth, lower teeth, partial facial nerves, facial muscles, and skin, effectively replacing 100 percent of the patient’s facial tissue.”

The procedure was paid for by the “US Department of Defense through the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine,” most likely in the hopes of improving the techniques involved so similar procedures could be performed on soldiers suffering from facial wounds.

Stubblefield is now undergoing physical and speech therapy to improve her skills with a new face, which lacks the control most people develop with their facial muscles from an early age. She will be taking immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of her life to decrease the chance of her body rejecting the graft.

Katie’s father told CNN:

You take it for granted, the different components of our faces — the bone, the tissue, the muscle, everything — but when it’s gone, you recognize the big need. Then when you receive a transplant, you’re so thankful.

Stubblefield has one thing on her mind: college. She hopes to study hard so she can become a counselor:

So many people have helped me. Now I want to help other people.

Katie’s perseverance inspired Twitter:

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.

H/T – Twitter, Business Insider, National Geographic

Written by Collin Gossel

Collin Gossel is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn, New York, but there are nights when he looks up at the stars and wistfully thinks to himself “there’s got to be more out there…” You can catch Collin improvising new musicals every Tuesday night at the Magnet Theater’s Musical Megawatt, or follow his unfiltered thoughts on Twitter and Instagram @CollinGossel.--