In 2005, surgeons in France completed the world’s first partial face transplant on a woman who lost her lips, cheeks, chin and most of her nose after she was mauled by her dog.
In August 2015, the Class of 99’s Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M.D., D.D.S., the Helen L. Kimmel Professor of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery and chair of the Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone, led a team of more than 100 physicians, nurses, technical and support staff to complete the most extensive face transplant to date, and the first in New York State. PHOTO CREDIT: NYU Langone
Eleven years and many lessons later, face transplantation has moved from possibility to reality, with surgeons refining techniques and transforming the lives of patients once considered beyond hope.
Leading the way is Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M’99, considered one of the world’s leading surgeons in the field.
He returned to VCU’s MCV Campus this summer as the speaker of the annual S. Dawson Theogaraj Lecture. Rodriguez is the Helen L. Kimmel Professor of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery and chair of the Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at New York University’s School of Medicine.
In August 2015, Rodriguez led a team at the NYU Langone Medical Center that completed the most extensive face transplant ever.
Patrick Hardison, a 41-year old fireman from Mississippi who had received horrific facial injuries received the face of cyclist David Rodebaugh. The operation received extensive media coverage and cemented Rodriguez’s reputation as a pioneer in the field.
He credits his time in VCU’s School of Medicine for a solid foundation in medicine. Rodriguez earned a D.D.S. degree from New York University in 1992, then completed his residency in oral and maxillofacial surgery at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
“There are oral surgery programs that have affiliations with a medical degree, and I had colleagues who recommended that this was something I should do. I applied to all the medical schools in the country that had a relationship with an oral surgery program.” He ended up at VCU, condensing his medical degree into two years. After that, he trained in the plastic surgery program at Johns Hopkins Hospital/University of Maryland Medical Center and completed a fellowship in Taiwan.
“I thought VCU was the best education I ever received,” he said in a telephone interview from New York. “Those were the most enriching educational years of my life. I became a very good student. Living in Richmond, a smaller town, allowed me to focus on education and gave me a very strong foundation to be successful.”
Eduardo D. Rodriguez, pictured with his face transplant patient Patrick Hardison at NYU Langone on Nov. 12, 2015. PHOTO CREDIT: NYU Langone
Rodriguez first became interested in the possibility of face transplants after hearing a lecture at Johns Hopkins about face transplants in rats. “My mentor at Johns Hopkins, the chief of plastic surgery, told me this is what I should be doing. I had no idea what that really meant, but I was fascinated by it.”
In March, 2012, Rodriguez led a team in what was one of the most extensive facial transplants ever, from hairline to the neck of a Virginia man who had suffered a gunshot wound. The 36-hour operation involved more than 100 health care providers along with meticulous planning and execution.
Rodriguez notes that such transplants include health and mental risks that must be weighed against the benefits. Recipients deal with the psychological battles of living with someone else’s face, as well as life-long reliance and side-effects of immunosuppressant medicines. As with other transplants, the body can reject a new face.
In such a developing field, he notes, there’s not yet a blueprint for success.
“Physicians and patients are on this journey together,” he says. “Once you’re successful and you see the patient doing well and you reflect on what we’ve achieved, and reflect on change in this individual’s life, you can’t help but be amazed by the complexity of the process.”
The Department of Defense and several research institutions, including NYU, have dedicated funding and resources to refining the procedure.
Rodriguez knows that the next decade will include improvements in transplantation and perhaps even some breakthroughs that seemed unimaginable in recent years.
“First, we have to keep working on trying to reduce the toxic effects of the [anti-rejection] medicines,” he says. He believes biomedical engineers will one day be able to create tissues specifically for patients needing transplants.
“It’s not just how many more transplants I can do, it’s how can we continue to improve the quality of face reconstruction and bring in different elements of science to provide these types of procedures safely, as well as improving the quality of these patients’ lives and shape a better future for these individuals.”
By Lisa Crutchfield