I stumbled across this Nat Geo September issue on Snapchat. It features the journey of Katie Stubblefield a suicide survivor at age 18 who became the youngest person in the U.S. to receive a face transplant. Her family's unconditional love and support was amazing. pic.twitter.com/rVeUr90fZB— M. (@oluwamaya) August 14, 2018
Katie Stubblefield, 21, received a face transplant after a severe gunshot injury restricted her facial functions, making her the youngest person in the United States to receive this type of surgery.
Stubblefield lost all facial functions after a suicide attempt. According to her father, Robb Stubblefield, she had gone through surgery for chronic gastrointestinal problems, dealt with betrayal in a personal relationship, and suffered because her mother was unjustly fired from her teaching job. After so many emotional hurdles, Stubblefield pulled the trigger in the bathroom at her older brother’s residence. She was 18 years old.
Three years later, she underwent a face transplant.
The idea of putting the young woman through this surgery came after her parents talked to a surgeon in Memphis, Tennessee, where she was flown for treatment after the suicide attempt.
“There was an older trauma surgeon who basically told us, 'It's the worst wound that I've ever seen of its kind,' and he said, 'The only thing I can think of that would really give her functional life again is a face transplant,'" her father told reporters. "I was standing there thinking, 'What do you mean, a face transfer? What do you do?’"
After being told about the possible solution, Katie Stubblefield said she was just as amazed.
"I had no clue what a face transplant was," she said. "When my parents helped explain everything to me, I was very excited to get a face again and to have function again."
She underwent the transplant in Cleveland, Ohio, which involved using a 3D printed jaw.
She said she hopes her story will raise awareness to the potential consequences of suicide, helping other young men and women like her to value life and avoid doing what she did to herself.
Stubblefield was the youngest person to have an entire face transplant surgery in America, making her story a special one.
When discussing National Geographic magazine's report on Stubblefield, the publication’s editor-in-chief, Susan Goldberg, said that Stubblefield’s story will help to save many lives.
"We think her story is one of the most important stories that we will do this year," the editor said. "We thought it was just such a moving and inspiring story that is about everything from human journey to breakthrough medicine and science."
And she might be right.
The young girl's journey in search of a functional face started in March 2016 when she was put on a waiting list. A year and two months later, after 31-year-old Adrea Schneider died of a drug overdose, Stubblefield got her donor.
The 31-hour surgery took place on May 4, 2017, and it involved several specialists, 11 surgeons, and a great deal of virtual reality technology.
"I am able to touch my face now, and it feels amazing," she said.
"You take it for granted, the different components of our faces — the bone, the tissue, the muscle, everything — but when it's gone, you recognize the big need. Then when you receive a transplant, you're so thankful," her father added.
In early August, Stubblefield was finally discharged, but her work is far from over.
She goes through physical and occupational therapy, takes Braille lessons, sees a speech therapist, and will have to take immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of her life, just so her immune system won’t attack her transplanted tissues.
"I'm definitely taking many, many daily steps," Stubblefield said, adding that she's alive now thanks to her parents’ love.
"Life is precious, and life is beautiful," she added.
While Stubblefield’s story may help others to think twice about trying to take their lives, her journey is also helping to shed light on yet another problem.
Currently, face transplants are seen as experimental treatments and are not covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance companies.
Stubblefield was able to get the surgery thanks to a U.S. Department of Defense grant, which helps soldiers who suffer severe facial wounds to get help through the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine.
Her surgery will help doctors advance the field of face transplantation, helping to make the treatment more commonplace and, perhaps, push insurance companies, as well as the government, to assist victims with the cost.
As young students across the country fight gun violence by mobilizing their friends, families, and the nation, suicide is part of the conversation as guns are most commonly used to commit suicide.
Like Stubblefield, many young and troubled people may make a bad decision and reach for a firearm. Her story could push the gun control conversation forward as many activists see this as another example of the gun violence epidemic the country is going through.
Banner and thumbnail image credit: Reuters/Aaron Josefczyk