Years after being badly burned in a car accident, 22-year-old Joe DiMeo is moving onto a new chapter in his life after becoming the first person to successfully receive a rare face and hands transplant.
“I knew it would be baby steps all the way,” DiMeo told the Associated Press. “You’ve got to have a lot of motivation, a lot of patience. And you’ve got to stay strong through everything.”
It will take time to confirm the long term success of DiMeo’s multiple transplants. He is only the third person in the world to receive a simultaneous face and double hand transplant, and the first successful case. He will need to take medications for the rest of his life to make sure his body doesn’t reject the surgeries.
“He’s the most highly motivated patient I’ve ever met,” Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, head of the team that completed the surgery, told reporters at a press briefing. “We needed to avoid infection, we needed to have this operation occur as fast as possible, we had to be very selective with the donor, and we had to implement every state-of-the-art technology that would ensure complete success of Joe’s operation, and that’s exactly what we did.”
DiMeo’s life changed following a car crash in 2018 when he fell asleep behind the wheel after working a night shift. His car flipped after hitting a pole and burst into flames. A witness was able to rescue the 20-year-old from the burning vehicle.
Following the accident, he underwent 20 reconstructive surgeries and multiple skin grafts while in a medically induced coma. His medical team began planning to attempt a risky transplant surgery once it became apparent that he would not be able to regain vision or use of his hands.
“Within the world of transplantation, they’re probably the most unusual,” said Dr. David Klassen, the United Network for Organ Sharing chief medical officer.
The first challenge was finding a donor amid the COVID-19 pandemic who would be compatible with DiMeo’s immune system. Eventually, they were able to track down a Delaware donor for the 23-hour operation. According to CNN, the entire operation used 80 people on six different medical teams operating in two joint rooms.
“Joe is healthy, he’s young, he’s strong, he loves to exercise, he eats healthy, and he had that one special element which is going to be required for this operation,” Rodriguez said, “A high level of motivation. And he had a tremendous sense of hope.”
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