Skip to contents
In This Issue:
Jim Maki this week meets with Susan Whitman-Helfgot one month following the face transplant made possible by her decision to donate her husband’s face when he passed away last month.
View a photo gallery of press conference and find more content online. Warning: Graphic Content
Jim Maki looks forward to walking down the street without fear of the harsh reactions he received after the accident that disfigured his face several years ago. “I used to be afraid of going out on the street because of things people would say or do,” said Maki, 59, a Vietnam veteran now regaining confidence in his appearance and making strides in his ability to speak and breathe without a tracheostomy tube. “I used to stay inside.”
More than a month after undergoing the nation’s second face transplant at BWH, Maki is beginning to envision his future with a sense of hope. As he shared his story with local and national media yesterday, he was joined by Bohdan Pomahac, MD, who, along with a team of surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, residents and techs, replaced the bony structures of Maki’s middle face, nose, nasal canal, hard palate, upper lip and muscle and tissue during a 17-hour surgery April 9.
Maki this week also met the person whose generosity made it all possible: Susan Whitman-Helfgot, who made the difficult decision to donate her husband’s face, among other organs, when he died at BWH earlier this year.
“I know what it is like for someone to not be able to eat or breathe because my husband couldn’t do those things for a few months,” she said, noting that her husband required a trach while he was sick, as Maki did prior to transplant. “It didn’t take an instant for me to say ‘yes’ when the New England Organ Bank asked me—no one should have to live without being able to swallow or breathe.”
Maki’s recovery is going “fantastically,” said Pomahac, director of the BWH Burn Center. “His speech immediately has improved just by him now having a hard palate; no one could understand his speech before.”
Ultimately, Maki will be able to control his facial expressions and eat what he likes, now that he has upper teeth and the option for dentures, as well as the ability to chew. “His scars also will improve,” Pomahac said. “In a year or two, they probably will be hard to notice.”
When Maki looked in the mirror for the first time after transplant, he found himself staring at a familiar feature in the reflection. “I was surprised that Dr. Pomahac could come that close to making my nose look how it did before the accident,” Maki said. “It looks like my old nose. I was lucky I had Dr. Pomahac to do this.”
Whitman-Helfgot immediately connected with Maki when she stepped into his room at BWH Tuesday. “I felt this familial connection, as though Jim were a relative I’d never met,” she said, describing their meeting as exhilarating, joyful and bittersweet. “We hugged and sat down, and he asked me about Joseph. It’s a miracle. Jim looks fantastic, healthy and strong.”
Maki, who waited for three months on the organ donor list, looked forward to meeting Whitman-Helfgot. “I needed to meet her to tell her thank you for allowing this to happen,” he said. “I’ve just been lucky.”
He also received an uplifting visit from Isabelle Dinoire, the world’s first face transplant recipient, who underwent the surgery in France in 2005 after she was attacked by her dog. “I was proud of her that she could do what she’s done since the operation,” Maki said. “She looked great. I couldn’t see a scar on her face.”
Dinoire advised Maki to be patient during recovery. “This is a time when I need to be patient, and I will be,” he said, praising Pomahac and all of his physicians, nurses, therapists and other members of his care team for his smooth recovery. “I am more than well taken care of here.”
Pomahac attributes the excellent care Maki has received to the extensive and talented team who cared for him prior to surgery, during the operation and now in his recovery. Among the many who have played an integral role in Maki’s post-operative care are Stefan Tullius, MD, and Anil Chandraker, MD, who designed and led the immunosuppression protocol.
“It’s very exciting to have a program like this so that we can help patients who have suffered trauma or benign tumors on the face,” Pomahac said, adding that he is reaching out to the Department of Defense to help veterans with injuries. “At our Burn Center, we are trying to provide innovative means of reconstruction for patients.”
As Maki, the beneficiary of such innovation, recovers, he is contemplating his future and the possibilities it holds, thanks to the transplant. “I’m thinking of going back to school,” said Maki, a Seattle native who moved to Amherst during high school and attended UMass Amherst for three years after returning from Vietnam. “I only have a year to go to finish.”
For Whitman-Helfgot, the simple fact that Maki is able to breathe and eat without tubes is comforting as she thinks about her husband’s memory.
“It is extraordinarily difficult in a time of grief to think about what one should do,” she said. “As someone who has gone through this, I am convinced that donating organs to save a life or lives is the quickest pathway to assuaging grief. It means that Joseph’s death was not in vain, and that’s what you hold on to.”
Her husband, who suffered from heart disease for years, did not wake up after a long-awaited heart transplant early in April. During their weeks and months at BWH, the Helfgots formed a strong bond with the many staff who cared for him.
“I don’t think there is any group anywhere who could have worked harder or more valiantly to keep my husband alive than those at the Brigham did,” Whitman-Helfgot said. “I know more than a hundred of them by name, and there are many others I don’t know. They gave me and our children precious weeks, days and hours with Joseph.”
She added, “I’m really happy we were at the Brigham in the right place, at the right time to help someone else.”
Isabelle Dinoire, the world’s first face transplant
recipient, meets with Jim Maki at BWH, advising him
to remain patient through the recovery process.