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In This Issue:
Four-year-old Scarlette sees her father, Dallas Wiens, for the first time since his face transplant, while Wiens’ grandmother, Sue, looks on. Bohdan Pomahac, MD, and Mitch Hunter exchange jerseys from their favorite NFL teams, the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, and signed by their favorite players, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady, respectively. Manning’s jersey was donated by his foundation, the PeyBack Foundation.
Facing a New Future: Dallas Wiens
Dallas Wiens, before and after. Before photo courtesy of Parkland Health and Hospital System.
Dallas Wiens remembers in explicit detail how it felt to wake up from surgery in March and touch his own face. “Not only did I have skin, but I also felt eyelids, a nose, lips, hair and eyebrows,” the 26-year-old recalled. “I thought, ‘That’s just incredible.’”
Wiens had lived without any of those features since 2008, when a cherry-picker he was working in maneuvered into a high voltage wire. After many surgeries, he came to BWH to meet with Bohdan Pomahac, MD, director of the hospital’s Plastic Surgery Transplantation Program and Burn Center, to find out if he was eligible for a face transplant. In March, thanks to a generous family who donated their loved one’s organs and a multidisciplinary team of BWHers, Wiens became the nation’s first full face transplant recipient.
“I couldn’t believe this was even medically possible,” he said of those first moments when he awoke after surgery. “Here I am with this new face.”
With that new face, Wiens felt incredible excitement for his future. “All the surgeons are brilliant, and I’m indebted to them for the rest of my life,” he said. “It’s a new life that I would’ve never had.”
And yet, the most important parts of his life to date are just as they always were. After being away from his daughter for months since he left Texas for the surgery, Wiens was overjoyed to reunite with four-year-old Scarlette at BWH last week. Seeing her father with his new face for the first time, she reached for him.
“She said ‘Daddy,’ she crawled into my lap and I held her,” he said. “As soon as she said, ‘I love you,’ I started crying.”
In Fort Worth, Texas, Wiens was sitting at his computer one night when his phone rang, an unfamiliar ringtone echoing in his ear. “I had most everybody set to specific ring tones,” said Wiens, who is blind as a result of his injury. “This wasn’t one of those ring tones.”
He’s glad he answered the call anyway. Pomahac was on the other end, explaining that a donor had been identified. Wiens should find a flight to Boston right away. “The world stopped,” said Wiens. “Everything around me stopped. I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t talk. I had no idea what to say.”
But he sprang into action shortly after, booking a flight to Boston with his grandfather, Del Peterson. Along with his grandmother, Sue, they met Wiens’ parents and younger brother at the airport and sat down to talk together before he boarded the plane destined for Logan Airport, a new future and life forever changed ahead of him.
Just a few weeks before that night, he had stopped waiting for the call. “I didn’t really give up on it, I was just done waiting,” he remembered. “It was the last call I ever expected.”
When Wiens arrived at the hospital, he couldn’t wait for the procedure to begin. With great confidence in Pomahac and the surgical team, he was ready. “It was one of the most exciting things I’ve been through. There was no fear,” he said.
Besides, Wiens, thought, “What’s one more surgery?”
He had already been through so many, and a face transplant would be his last. It outweighed any other option that he had been presented with, such as prosthetic features and additional surgeries.
Pomahac and 30 members of the surgical team, including physicians, nurses, anesthesiologists, residents, surgical techs and others, worked for 15 hours to replace Wiens’ facial area, including his nose, lips, facial skin, muscles of facial animation and the nerves that power them and provide sensation.
“We are fortunate to have such a dedicated team of clinicians who have been unwavering in their desire to do everything possible for Dallas and others like him,” Pomahac said. “This procedure is meant to be life-giving, and that is certainly true in Dallas’ case.”
Wiens has been recovering and enjoying every milestone along the way, especially his regained ability to smell and breathe through his new nose.
“I didn’t have a nose before,” he said, recalling the unforgettable aroma of a plate of lasagna that he had in the hospital while recovering. “My only airway was through my mouth. It’s just awesome to be able to breathe through my nose.”
He’s been eating and drinking, and he looks forward to activities like yoga and tae kwon do as he continues to recover.
Though he describes himself as tenacious and stubborn—he was doing push-ups in his room at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Texas after his injury simply because someone told him he couldn’t—Wiens attributes his positive attitude to what he calls “The Three Fs: faith, family and friends.”
“From the moment I got hurt, my family and friends came together, by my side, and they’ve been through everything with me,” he said. “Where I come from, I can’t be bitter or negative when I know that my family and friends absolutely love me. I don’t see how you can be bitter knowing that.”
It’s especially hard to be bitter with a cheerful four-year-old daughter like Scarlette around. Being away from her was one of the most difficult parts of this experience, he said.
His grandmother, Sue Peterson, visited him in Boston during his recovery and brought Scarlette to him last week. “We’re just glad to be on this journey with him,” she said of herself and husband Del. “We consider it a privilege.”
Wiens is thankful every day for the family who chose to donate a loved one’s organs, making his surgery possible. “So many lives are changed through organ donation, and I know that first hand now,” he said, adding that he is going to encourage all of his family members and friends to register as organ donors. “It’s amazing.”
He’s had plenty of time to reflect on this experience and the responsibilities he carries because of it.
“I have a responsibility not only to my care team, but also to our service men and women,” Wiens said. “They choose to sacrifice everything when they serve, and what I’m doing now could help them in the future. I served, not in combat or on a deployment, but now I get to serve in a way that I never expected.”
Wiens’ Words to Live By “The face doesn’t make the person. No matter what someone looks like, how good looking they are or how disfigured they are, there’s a soul and feelings and emotions within. I think we always need to be conscious of that and be kind to each other...what you give and do for others is more fulfilling than anything you could possibly do for yourself.”
Just another Face in the Crowd:Mitch Hunter
Mitch Hunter, before (with prosthetic nose) and after. Before photo courtesy of the Hunter family.
For 30-year-old Mitch Hunter, being able to blend in when he goes out in public has been a decade-long dream.
Hunter, who came into contact with a high voltage electrical wire following a car accident in 2001, suffered a severe shock, scarring his face. Though he underwent multiple reconstructive surgeries and was fitted with a prosthetic nose, people still stared.
“I got used to the staring, but not to little kids being scared of me,” he said.
All that changed in April, when Hunter became the nation’s second recipient of a full face transplant at BWH. Just weeks after his surgery, he went to dinner in the North End and sat behind home plate at a Red Sox game—and no one looked twice.
“I’m just another face in the crowd,” he said. “Even with the swelling, kids don’t notice me. I wasn’t nervous at all to go out.”
He wasn’t nervous to undergo the 14-hour life-changing surgery, either. “I’d already been through so many surgeries, so this was just another day for me,” he said. “Only this time, I wouldn’t have to have any more reconstructive surgeries after.”
It also helped that his surgery happened just about a month after Bohdan Pomahac, MD, director of the Plastic Surgery Transplantation Program and Burn Center, and his team performed the nation’s first full facial transplant on Dallas Wiens, 26. While waiting to go to the Operating Room, Hunter had the opportunity to meet Wiens. “It was not just a coincidence that we are going through this at the same time; I think it was meant to happen this way,” he said.
The two have quickly become friends, leaning on each other for support and talking about all of their common interests.
“We’re more than friends; we’re brothers,” Hunter said of Wiens, noting how helpful it has been to go through this experience with someone else. They plan to stay in touch long after they leave Boston, and they even talked about having their children meet someday.
Hunter is most looking forward to going home to Speedway, Indiana, to reunite with his one-year-old son, Clayton, and 11-month-old identical twins, Kyliee and Isabella. They were the main reasons he wanted the surgery; although they weren’t afraid of him, he didn’t want them to be treated differently as they grow up because of his appearance.
He caught sight of his new face for the first time when Pomahac brought him a handheld mirror while he was in intensive care. “I was amazed,” he said. “It was better than my expectations.”
He thanks the surgical team and the team who cared for him throughout his recovery. “The care teams were amazing,” he said.
Excited to be a pioneer in this emerging field, Hunter is hopeful that sharing his experience will illustrate the importance of organ donation and how much this kind of surgery can change a person’s life.
He can’t wait to reveal his new face to his friends and family, and he is grateful for the support they have given him since the accident.
“Life keeps going on, and you have to keep pushing through it,” he said. “I have family and a whole plethora of friends who don’t care what I look like and wouldn’t let me be a hermit and stay in the house, trying to hide from the world.”
Thanks to the generous family of his organ donor, he never has to hide again.
“I’m very grateful to the donor and his family,” Hunter said, urging everyone to register as an organ donor. “I’ll forever be thankful for their generosity. They’ll always be in my thoughts and prayers. I’ll never forget what they did.”
From left, Bohdan Pomahac, MD, Mitch Hunter, first partial face transplant recipient Jim Maki and Dallas Wiens.
Watch Mitch Hunters' interview here.