Katie Stubblefield, a girl who lost her face at 18, is currently the youngest individual in the United States to receive a full face transplant.
Stubblefield received the transplant at 21. She managed to survive a record-breaking 31-hour operation done at the Cleveland Clinic. She received the face of Adrea Schneider with the permission of her grandmother Sandra Bennington.
Face transplants are still considered as experimental surgery. In fact, many insurance companies do not cover face transplants. Stubblefield received hers through the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine that normally supported hand transplants.
Stubblefield's face transplant was the third face transplant but the very first total face transplant at Cleveland Clinic. It was only the 40th known face transplant all over the world.
National Geographic photographer Maggie Steber followed Stubblefield for a full two and a half years to chronicle her everyday life before, during, and after the transplant. Her full life story is the cover of the magazine's September issue with the title "The Story of a Face."
Stubblefield lost her face in 2014 when she shot her own face with a rifle after she had discovered that her boyfriend was cheating on her. She shot her chin but miraculously survived. She considered her face transplant her second chance in life.
Stubblefield's sister, Olivia McCay, described her as fearless with sarcastic humor just like their brother, Robert. As Stubblefield grew up, however, she became an overachiever. McCay said she wanted to excel in sports and be the best academically.
Stubblefield's senior year was challenging, where she had to endure chronic gastrointestinal condition. Her appendix had been taken out the year before and her gallbladder removed subsequently.
In the same year, her mother was fired from her job. All these events seemed to have piled up one after another until she discovered her boyfriend had cheated on her. The guy was the one who broke up with her.
Stubblefield used her brother's .308 caliber for her attempted suicide. It was her brother who discovered her inside their bathroom.
Kathy Coffman, a clinic psychiatrist, explained that her suicide attempt was an impulsive decision. She would have changed her mind five minutes later or five minutes earlier.
Historic Face Transplant
Prior to her surgery, Stubblefield said she had no idea what a face transplant was. After hearing her parent's explanation, she was overwhelmed with excitement about the possibility of getting a face again.
Brian Gastman, one of the doctors who operated on her, said Stubblefield's case was one of the worst face traumas he has ever encountered. She had a traumatic brain injury.
The bullet damaged her frontal lobe, optic nerve, and pituitary gland. The latter made her hormones and sodium levels out of control. It took a multidisciplinary team of 15 doctors to make the whole surgery a success.
Frank Papay, chair of the Dermatology and Plastic Surgery Institute at Cleveland Clinic, explained that the ultimate goal of face transplants was not to restore the "good look" physically. Instead, face transplants are done to restore the ability to eat, to speak, to breathe normally through the nose, and to blink.
Stubblefield told Steber that she remembered 2014 vaguely. She cannot recall her suicide attempt and the surgeries that came after. Her parents had to tell her everything from the start. She was shocked when she first heard her story.
"I never thought of doing that ever before, and so on hearing about it, I just didn't know how to handle it. I felt so guilty that I had put my family through such pain. I felt horrible," she said.
Stubblefield's face transplant was a success but her journey in her second life was not yet over. According to an update from the Cleveland Clinic, she remained unable to see and is currently learning Braille.
Nevertheless, Stubblefield sees herself going to college, perhaps becoming a counselor or a teacher. She cannot wait to walk down the street again and "blend in."