- Cameron Underwood of Yuba City, California, was left with a severe gunshot wound to his face after attempting suicide in June 2016.
- Eighteen months later, in January, a donor became available, and Underwood was approved for a face transplant.
- Underwood is now thriving less than a year after the surgery, and has even gone skydiving.
Eleven months after undergoing a groundbreaking face transplant surgery, a 26-year-old California man who lost his own face to a suicide attempt is opening up about his recovery.
Cameron Underwood of Yuba City was left with severe damage to his face after he attempted suicide with a self-inflicted gunshot in June 2016.
The gunshot wound left him missing most of his lower jaw, his nose, and all but one tooth, according to New York University’s Langone Health.
Despite several surgeries, little could be done to save his face, and Underwood was left severely disfigured.
Months later, however, he was put in touch with Langone Health’s Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, a leading doctor in facial-reconstruction procedures, and was put on a donor list.
Underwood waited 18 months for a new face
In January, a donor became available, and Underwood travelled 2,800 miles to New York – farther than any other face transplant patient before him – to undergo his groundbreaking operation.
The transplant, which took place just 18 months after his injury, marked the shortest time between a patient’s injury and their face transplant. The procedure took 25 hours.
Just 11 months after undergoing the surgery, Underwood’s recovery has been remarkable.
His recovery has been faster than any other case, Rodriguez said, and he has even gone skydiving.
At a press conference held on Thursday, Underwood told reporters he is happy with the results of the transplant, according to the Daily Mail.
“Even though I’m still recovering and gaining back some sensation and mobility, I’m so happy with the results,” he said. “I have a nose and a mouth again, so I’m able to smile, speak, and eat solid foods. I also don’t get as many stares or questions from strangers.”
Rodriguez said in a press release that the short time between injury and surgery helped Underwood recovery quickly.
“Cameron has not lived with his injury for a decade or longer like most other face transplant recipients have,” he said. “As a result, he has not had to deal with many of the long-term psychosocial issues, which often lead to issues like severe depression, substance abuse, and other potentially harmful behaviours.”
There have been more than 40 face transplants across the world since the first was performed, in France in 2005.
This is the third face transplant performed under the leadership of Rodriguez and the second at Langone Health.
For the first time, Rodriguez and his team used a 3-D printed mask of the face of the donor, William Fisher, to restore its integrity before his body was returned to his family.
Fisher was a 23-year-old chess champion and filmmaker who joined the organ-donor list as a teenager.
Along with giving his face to Underwood, Fisher donated his heart, kidneys, liver, eyes and other tissues after he died suddenly.
The donor’s mother has watched Underwood’s recovery
Fisher’s mother, Sally Fisher, said watching Underwood’s recovery has been a “source of strength” for her.
“I don’t think I would have survived Will’s death if not for Cameron. Cameron has his whole life ahead of him – and I love the idea that Willie is helping him have a better life,” she said in a statement to NYU.
Sally Fisher and Underwood met earlier this year on an episode of ABC News’ “20/20.”
“You look beautiful,” Fisher told Underwood of his new face. “I guess I’m a little biased. I think you’re drop-dead gorgeous.”
While most face transplants in the US are performed under research grants primarily from the US Department of Defence, Underwood’s third-party, private insurance covered a significant amount of the cost of the surgery.
Like all other face transplant patients, Underwood will remain on antirejection medications for the rest of his life to ensure his body does not reject the new tissue. So far, his body has responded well to the transplant.
“We hope my experience inspires others who have severe facial injuries to have hope, as I was inspired by others who came before me,” Underwood said in the press statement. “The journey hasn’t been easy, but it’s been well worth it.”
Underwood spoke out about his transplant less than two months after another transplant patient and suicide survivor, Katie Stubblefield, opened up about her own journey.
And in May, a 65-year-old Canadian man named Maurice Desjardins became the oldest person to receive a face transplant after a hunting accident damaged his face.
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.