After Aaron James lost his face and eye in a work accident, his wife and teen daughter helped keep his spirits up until doctors gave him his new face in May
“Honestly, I’m a little upset,” says Aaron James as he joins a PEOPLE interview call just two days before revealing the news of his groundbreaking eye and face transplant to the world. “We saw this morning who got PEOPLE’s Sexiest Man Alive. I was really hoping I might've got in on that.”
James’s delivery is deadpan — it's the same dry humor that has helped keep his family together amid an unimaginable tragedy.
In June 2021, half of James’s face, including his nose and his left eye, was destroyed after he was electrocuted on the job as a lineman — and doctors also had to amputate his dominant left arm. The accident left him breathing through a trach tube and with only a small opening for his mouth. All his food needed to be pureed and sipped through a straw.
After such an accident, it might seem like the 46-year-old wouldn't have much to smile — let alone, laugh — about. But for James, his wife of 20 years, Meagan, and their teen daughter Allie, humor has been a necessary medicine. "Every day we would laugh about something,” he says. “We've had to have a pretty good sense of humor through this whole thing. That's really what's got us through all this.”
Not long after her dad came home with his startling facial injuries, Allie, now 18, was sitting outside with her high school volleyball team when a flash of lightning crossed the sky. Allie jumped up suddenly, announcing to her teammates, “Guys, we better get inside before we look like my dad!”
Aaron laughs at the memory. But Allie says not everyone gets it. “Everyone gets real shocked when I make jokes or when any of us make jokes,” she says. “They're like, ‘Oh my gosh, am I allowed to laugh at this?’”
But, Meagan, 39, says, “We’d usually tell them, ‘Whatever you're thinking of in your head, we've probably already made the joke.’"
One example: Aaron’s left arm. When doctors had to amputate it, “he also lost a pretty sick tattoo,” Allie says. The tattoo depicted a set of armor, “but my armor didn't work too well!” James jokes. Adds Meagan: “I said it conducted the electricity through his arm.”
Allie would often help keep spirits up by posting silly videos to social media. “Allie would always come up with good ones,” Aaron says. “You know how you go up to babies and say, ‘Got your nose! Got your nose!’ Well, Allie did that and then she turned the camera around and it's me sitting there looking at her.” His nose, of course was already gone. “It was funny!”
It’s the kind of humor that they shared before the accident, and it gave the family a sense of normalcy in a time of uncertainty. “People told us that he wasn’t going to be the same person he was — when a trauma happens it’s almost expected,” Allie says. “But he didn’t change, really.”
One thing that did change is the amount of time Aaron was able to spend with his family. In his work as a lineman, he’d often be away for three weeks at a time. “I missed a lot of stuff with Allie growing up because I was gone all the time,” Aaron says.
After the accident “he got to be a part of a lot more stuff,” Allie says. “Before if he came to a volleyball game, it was like maybe one or two a season. Now he's actually able to show up.”
Thanks to his new transplant operation the family is also looking forward to spending the holidays with extended family — a tradition they missed because of Aaron’s inability to eat. “I didn't want to go to Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas dinner and have to fix Aaron a soup, while we're sitting there eating this huge meal,” Meagan says. “So we’d all skip out and spend it together.” This year, “we’ll put the blender in the trophy case,” she says, and they'll enjoy the holidays together.
And as difficult as the trauma of the accident and the challenge of going through the transplant process has been, it’s all brought them closer together, says Aaron: “I couldn't ask for anything else.”
Says Meagan, “We realize now we didn't need as much as we thought.”
“What we need is right here,” adds Aaron.
“Just each other,” says Meagan, finishing his thought.
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