N.Y.U. face-transplant patient faces the public

Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, right, spoke about the operation as photos of Cameron Underwood — from left, before his self-inflicted injury, after the injury and after the surgery — were shown. Photos by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | More than 11 months after a 25-hour operation that gave him a new face, Cameron Underwood spoke publicly for the first time about the cutting-edge surgery.

“Thank you for not giving up on me,” Underwood told his supporters and families on Thurs., Nov. 29. “It hasn’t been easy, but it has been worth it.”

As Underwood, 26, spoke, standing alongside him was the doctor who led the grueling operation, Eduardo Rodriguez, chairperson of N.Y.U. Langone Health’s Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Underwood suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his face, leaving him with major difficulties eating, breathing and speaking.

Mental health struggles drove him to attempt suicide — but his mother, Beverly Bailey-Potter, refused to give up. She happened to read a magazine article about the first face transplant Rodriguez had performed at N.Y.U. Langone Health and immediately contacted him in hopes of giving her son a second chance at life.

Within 18 months — a record time in the U.S. — doctors identified a donor through LiveOnNY, an organ-recovery organization. The donor was William Fisher, a 23-year-old Manhattanite who died last year.

Fisher’s mother, Sally, said in a statement, “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.”

Just more than 40 face transplants have been performed worldwide since the first one in 2005, according to N.Y.U. Langone. Rodriguez and his 100-person-team reached unprecedented milestones in their second face transplant. For one, Underwood’s surgery was partly covered by a private insurer through his employer, which Rodriguez said is critical in making such operations the standard of care.

Cameron Underwood with Sally Fisher, the mother of the donor whose face is now Underwood’s.

Underwood’s surgery involved a combination of reconstruction and transplantation on his upper and lower jaw, all 32 teeth and gums, the roof and floor of his mouth, lower eyelids and cheeks, plus his nose and sections of the nasal passage.

“It’s a very complex procedure,” Rodriguez explained. “The timing of that is incredibly crucial.”

Fisher donated several different organs in addition to his face. Two teams of operating rooms worked side by side for more than a day to procure Fisher’s heart, liver, kidneys, eyes and other tissues for research purposes.

But just days after Fisher’s death, when Underwood was readying to fly crosscountry for his face transplant surgery, the infamous “bomb cyclone” snowstorm struck New York, canceling his commercial flight. But volunteer pilots that the hospital works with were able to fly Underwood to the city in the “nick of time,” Rodriguez said.

“If they would’ve been stuck in the storm, Cameron would not have received his transplant,” the doctor said.

His recovery was speedier than the first face transplant operation that Rodriguez performed. Underwood spent 37 days in the hospital compared to 62 days with Rodriguez’s previous patient. Time in the intensive-care unit and rehabilitation was more than halved, from 51 to 23 days and 13 to 7 days, respectively.

“I guess the easy way to explain it would be [being] like a newborn,” Underwood said of his recovery. “How to position your tongue and your lips and all of that — and you forget how difficult that is. You have to really learn it all over again.”

Rodriguez hopes Underwood’s story encourages people to sign up to be an organ donor.

“When we’re gone from this material world and we’re in a better spiritual place, we still have the ability to provide material gifts that are life-saving,” Rodriguez said.

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