Modern medicine is nothing short of incredible. Every day, incredible surgeries get performed that allow people to recover from things that, at one point in history, would have been a death sentence. It's amazing, and the doctors that do this work are heroes.
But there's still work to be done and new methods to try, with medical firsts still paving the way for future care. One of those firsts happened earlier this year when a man who survived a horrific accident was not only able to get a new face but a new eye as well.
Eye For An Eye
In an absolute marvel of modern medicine, a man in New York had the world's first successful living whole-eye transplant, all alongside a partial face transplant as well.
The patient, Aaron James, had lost his left eye and a large portion of his face in a workplace accident. He needed not only the eye replaced, but his nose, lips, and cheeks, all of which a team of over 140 surgeons helped make a reality at NYU Langone Health.
A Hard Day's Work
The entire procedure took about 21 hours and was extremely complex, but it paid off incredibly, with Aaron taking to all the transplants well.
In his recovery, Aaron has been showing "remarkable" signs of health, according to his team. The eye transplant, though successful in that it's connected to his ocular nerve, still cannot see. There is a chance it could gain sight with time, though.
"That's really my biggest hope," he said. “If I can see out of it, that’s great. But if it’ll kick-start the next path in the medical field, then I’m all for it.”
Aaron's need for this nearly day-long procedure came from an injury he sustained while working as a high-voltage power lineman. Back in 2021, the military veteran was working alongside his colleagues when his face accidentally touched a live wire they'd been working on.
He received a brutal shock of 7,200 volts right to his face. Almost the entirety of the left side of his face, as well as his lips, nose, chin, and part of his left arm, were burned by the wire.
In A Rush
He'd been working in Mississippi, where he was initally rushed to hospital, while his family was at their home in Arkansas. When Aaron's wife, Meagan, was called and told about the situation, she immediately packed up and drove to Mississippi to see him, leaving their teenage daughter, Allie, in the care of her grandmother. During the drive, she received another call, this time from the doctor.
Meagan asked if Aaron was going to be okay, and all the doctor said was, "The only thing that I can promise you is that he won't die before you get here."
The First Look
Aaron's injuries were, of course, intensive. His arm wasn't able to be salvaged in the end and had to be amputated above the burn. He was sent around to different hospitals and medical centers for specific, specialized care, but was eventually flown out to a burn unit in Dallas, Texas. It was here that Allie finally got to see him.
"When I saw him, his chinbone was exposed," Allie said, "I could see his eye socket and everything. I was seeing his skull, and I think that's the part that was kind of freaky for me. I was like 'Oh, my goodness, his face is gone.'"
A Lapse In Memory
"Most of my worries was just how he was going to be when he was awake and aware."
Surprisingly, when he woke up, he didn't remember the accident at all. "Basically, I got up, went to work and woke up six weeks later in Dallas, Texas," he said. “It's a weird feeling when you just all of a sudden wake up in a hospital.”
Curious to see the damage himself, he asked Meagan to take a photo of his face and show it to him.
"She said, 'Are you sure?' I said, ‘Yeah, it’ll be fine,’" Aaron said.
“She took a picture, and she spun the phone around, and I was just like, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is a bad deal right here,’” he explained. “I mean, I felt OK, so I knew I was going to be OK. We were just going to have a long road ahead of us.”
Aaron's medical team had already proposed the idea of a face transplant to Meagan. When she told him about this, he was "all for it" right away.
A Pretty Good State
"As soon as the face transplant got talked about, that's when I thought, 'Man, this is a big deal,’ because they just don’t do those every day," he said.
It was here that the team in New York was brought on board, specifically Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, director of the Face Transplant Program at NYU Langone Health and a surgeon who'd performed four face transplants already.
Dr. Rodriguez said that seeing Aaron in (relatively) such good condition was "impressive," given that he was up and walking, seemingly free of any lasting neurological issues.
Not His Time
"It's a testament to modern medicine," Dr. Rodriguez said. “It’s a testament to this patient and his family. And it’s also a testament that, in these cases, there’s some celestial involvement where it wasn’t his time to go.”
When the Dallas team removed Aaron's left eye, they kept his optic nerve as intact as they could with the hopes of an eye transplant maybe being on the table. Aaron was warned that should he agree to this, not only was it a new science, but it may not give him his sight back.
First Of Its Kind
Which he was seemingly fine with, wanting to be part of this medical miracle moment.
"I said 'even if it don't work, I’ll have an eye, and it will be at least normal-looking, and then you all could learn something off of this.' You have to have a patient zero.”
When it came time to actually perform the transplant, Dr. Rodriguez admitted that it was a "risky" operation. "It's completely uncharted territory," Rodriguez said. And with that, the extremely arduous and complex surgery was ready to take place.
A New Lease On Life
And it all went incredibly.
The face transplant not only gave Aaron a, well, face again, but it also restored his sense of smell and taste. Though the donor eye remains blind, that's a fair trade for having everything else back.
He was reportedly thrilled when he got to see himself in a mirror after the surgery, as was his wife. "It was a crazy, great, weird, strange, ecstatic, happy feeling," Meagan said. “I was just happy he made it through, and everything was good in the moment.”
What The Future Could Hold
Aaron now shows "remarkable" signs of health and recovery, with his last wish being that he gets his full sight back.
"That's really my biggest hope," Aaron said. “If I can see out of it, that’s great. But if it’ll kick-start the next path in the medical field, then I’m all for it.”
As for now, he's just happy to be returning to a somewhat normal life. In an interview with AFP, he said, "I can smell again, I can eat again, taste food. For the first time in a year and a half, I got to kiss my wife." It's these little victories that make recovering from such an intensive operation possible.