A team of New York-based surgeons have successfully carried out the world’s first whole eye and partial face transplant on a patient who survived devastating injuries as a result of a high-voltage electric shock.
The procedure was carried out on 46-year old veteran Aaron James, who while working as a high-voltage lineman suffered an accident on June 10, 2021 involving a live wire, which saw 7,200 volts of electricity pass through his body. The shock caused extreme damage to James’ face, leading to the loss of his nose, cheek, lips, front teeth, and left arm up to the elbow.
Thankfully, James survived the accident, though the severity of his injuries prompted doctors to place him in a medically induced coma, after which he underwent multiple surgeries, including one which saw Texan physicians remove his damaged left eye, while retaining as much of the optic nerve as possible.
In June 2022, James was assessed by a team of specialists from NYU Langone Health led by Dr. Eduardo D. Rodriguez, who collectively agreed to perform the world’s first complete eye and partial face transplant.
Aaron James, who survived a 7,200-volt electric shock while working as a lineman in June 2021, recently received the world’s first whole-eye and partial face transplant at NYU Langone Health, providing him a new sense of normalcy.
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While the transplant of corneas has become relatively widespread, James’ operation represented the first known instance of a whole eye transplant. This type of transplant is inherently difficult owing to the risk of immune rejection, issues with blood flow, and difficulties in establishing nerve connections. To reduce the risk of the latter, it was decided that James’ optic nerve would be injected with bone marrow-derived stem cells taken from the donor, in an attempt to boost nerve regeneration.
In May 2023, the organ procurement organization LiveOnNY was able to identify a viable donor for James. “The donor hero was a young man in his 30s who came from a family that strongly supports organ donation,” said president and CEO of LiveOnVY Leonard Achan. “He, in support by his family, generously donated tissues leading to this successful face and eye transplant, but also saved three other individuals between the ages of 20 and 70, donating his kidneys, liver, and pancreas.”
In a procedure that lasted 21 hours, 16 surgeons and an extended team of 80 specialists operated simultaneously on both donor and patient. Using state-of-the-art technology, the surgeons were able to methodically transplant onto James the donor’s lower face, left eye, and large sections of the underlying skull including the left eye socket, while connecting vital facial nerves and blood vessels.
The surgery was ultimately a success, and in the six months following the procedure James has regained many functions that had been taken from him by the accident, including his ability to smell, taste, and eat solid foods.
James is not currently able to see through his transplanted left eye, and it is not clear whether he will ever gain that capability. However, the donor eye is otherwise healthy, months out from the operation, which gives rise to the possibility of further advancements that could restore sight for transplant patients.
“I’m grateful beyond words for the donor and his family, who have given me a second chance at life during their own time of great difficulty,” said James. “I hope the family finds solace in knowing that part of the donor lives on with me.”
“I will also forever be thankful to Dr. Rodriguez and his team for changing my life. My family and I wouldn’t have been able to navigate this difficult journey without their expertise and support. Our hope is that my story can serve as inspiration for those facing severe facial and ocular injuries.”
Image credit: JOE CARROTTA / NYU LANGONE STAFF
Anthony is a freelance contributor covering science and video gaming news for IGN. He has over eight years experience of covering breaking developments in multiple scientific fields and absolutely no time for your shenanigans. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer