Transplant man sees his new face

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 April, 2006, 12:00am

Patient receives counselling after ground-breaking surgery

The man who received what is believed to be world's second face transplant was given a mirror yesterday - and appeared to approve of the results.

The 30-year-old patient - identified as Li Guoxing from Yunnan province - was being counselled to adapt to his new face, according to Han Yan, vice-director of the Xijing Hospital's plastic surgery institute in Xian. Mr Li has even managed to take in some liquid food.

The 14-hour operation in Xian last Friday came six months after Isabelle Dinoire in France became the first person to receive a face transplant.

Dr Han said that while a face transplant might have been appropriate for a patient such as Mr Li, he would not recommend the procedure for most patients with facial deformities 'because the side effects and damage to the immune system from immuno-suppressant medication are just far too great'.

Two years ago, Mr Li was attacked by a bear which tore off his right cheek, nose and upper lip. He survived but was shunned by his community and even barred from entering the grounds of the local primary school because his appearance was deemed too disturbing.

His face was repaired using the right cheek, upper lip and nose from a brain-dead donor.

Mr Li had given up hunting, a generations-old tradition among his small Lisu ethnic community, and became a farmer in response to an initiative launched by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a non-profit organisation based in the US.

TNC made contact with the Xian-based hospital on behalf of Mr Li after hearing reports that the hospital's plastic surgery institute had carried out partial face transplants on rabbits in December.

The hospital began researching face transplants in 2002 and set up a team two years later to prepare for a possible transplant. The team, led by Guo Shuzhong and Dr Han, practised on cadavers in addition to experiments on rabbits.

Last year the team shortlisted three candidates to undergo the operation and decided Mr Li was the ideal candidate because reconstruction using his own tissue was impossible and a successful transplant would produce dramatic improvements, said Dr Guo.

The operation was also made possible by what Dr Guo believed to be a perfect donor. Although he refused to discuss details of the man, he said they persuaded the brain-dead man's family to donate the body after signing a confidentiality document.

Dr Guo admitted his team was fully aware of the international outcry over the mainland's low ethical standards, so the hospital set up an independent ethics committee to assess the risks involved, the possible impact face transplants would have on patients and their families, and the likely public reaction to the operation.

Dr Han said he was a little disappointed with the results as the patient's face was still slightly distorted. He has dismissed the possibility of face transplants becoming conventional procedure.

'It's not simply that if you don't like your face, you can have the doctors give you a new one. We just wouldn't do that,' Dr Han added.

It was a cutting-edge procedure and would remain that way for years because of its complexity.

'On top of that, a matching donor can't be easily found, and the costs are also daunting,' Dr Guo stressed.