Inside Connie Culp’s extraordinary journey to becoming the first face transplant patient in the US

When Connie Culp’s husband shot her in the face in 2004, her life was permanently altered. Her nose and cheekbones were among the 80% of her face that were shattered, rendering her entirely unrecognizable. She somehow made it through, but her future was in doubt. One child even referred to her as a “monster” when they were at the store.

However, Connie was given a second chance at life five years later. Thanks to a kind donor, she had the first nearly complete face transplant in the US. The procedure, which was carried out at the Cleveland Clinic, required 23 hours of fantastic work from doctors.

After additional procedures and surgeries, she was given a brand-new face. And the outcome was nothing short of amazing.

When Connie Culp and her husband, Tom, first met and fell in love, they hadn’t even finished school. They then set out on an unknown journey. They fled together at age 16, even though they weren’t really sure what they were doing.

The pair eventually decided to operate a tavern in an Appalachian town. Despite their intense affection for one another, Connie’s husband didn’t treat her well.

“My connection with Tom was the same as it was when I lived with my father. I followed his advice when he gave it to me. He made fun of me and abused me. I just assumed it was a regular way of life because my dad did the same thing, she said to Oprah.

Connie started to defend herself after receiving horrible treatment for years.

He would push me in front of other people, and when they saw it, she recalls getting up and telling them, “I’m a good person, and I don’t deserve that.” He wasn’t used to hearing me respond.

But Connie’s life was irrevocably altered on September 21, 2004. Her husband shot her in the face after accusing her of making out with another man. Then he pulled the trigger and turned it on himself, but he lived.

Connie was able to find her twin sister Bonnie by going downstairs. Then Bonnie contacted Alicia, Connie’s daughter.

“I always knew that he could really hurt somebody, I knew he had a potential, I just didn’t think it would be my mom,” the woman’s daughter recalled.

Connie’s nose, cheeks, mouth roof, and one of her eyes were all broken by the explosion. Her upper eyelids, forehead, lower lip, and chin were the only areas of her face that were unharmed despite being covered in fragments.

Of course, the charge was horrifying. Connie claims that she was unaware of the extent of her injuries at the time.

She claimed, “You’re actually in shock, and you have no feelings.” Your adrenaline is pumping so quickly that there was no discomfort.

Fortunately, there was an emergency medical technician nearby. To halt the bleeding, he packed her severely damaged face with ice after scooping it up.

“I could feel the skin slipping from my face”
Connie was left with partial blindness, lost her ability to smell and talk, and was forced to breathe via a surgical incision in her neck. She was lucky just to be alive.

“I stopped being able to smell. My nose and eye were lost. They had to wire my jaw shut. I didn’t lose any teeth in the incident, but the top of my mouth started to degrade, and I eventually lost the entire top of my mouth, Connie said.

I felt my face slipping downward.

Later, her spouse received a seven-year prison term. Connie claimed that she forgiven her spouse the same day in 2009. Nevertheless, they later got a divorce.

“I [will] always love him. I had two children with him, after all,” Culp remarked. “But what about that? She told ABC, “I can’t be with him anymore. “I won’t allow anyone to discuss that; I thought about it for six years. And what about that? It’s a fresh start now. My face has changed. I’m a new person.

Connie underwent 30 procedures over the course of the following five years while the medical team worked to restore her face. Face transplants weren’t very prevalent back then. In actuality, nobody in the US had ever gotten one.

As the first person in the US to get a new face, Connie would make history. Naturally, it would be a long time before her voyage was nearly over.

Connie made an effort to conduct her life as normally as she could as she waited. She regrettably became the target of insults from strangers.

She once overheard a child telling her that she looked like a monster when she was out shopping.

Connie recalls the youngster saying, “You said there weren’t any real monsters, Mommy, but there’s one right there,” pointing at her.

I’m not a monster, I say. In response, Connie produced her driver’s license to demonstrate her former appearance to the youngster. “I was shot,” the person said.

Connie received a number of physical and psychological examinations to make sure she was in sound physical and mental condition. Unfortunately, they had no idea when or even if they would ever find a donor, and she was aware that the ground-breaking procedure might not succeed. She might possibly end up looking worse than she did before the shooting.

The Culp family then received some wonderful news one day, on December 9, 2008. A donor had been identified by the Cleveland Clinic; her name was Anna Kasper.

Anna’s relatives spoke highly of her as a kind and lovable person. Sadly, she had walked out onto her back porch, smoked a cigarette, and then passed away from exposure to the elements. Her family felt certain that Anna would have wished to donate her face to aid another person in need.

Ron Kasper, Anna’s husband, observed that Connie and Anna are similar in many respects.

“As far as her personality, how much she enjoys life, how she smiles, and how she is still able to have such a great attitude after all that she’s been through, and she takes everything in stride.”

He continued, “She’s a very remarkable individual. And Anna was, as well.

“She would allow her time. She would give her cash. She provided a lot of things to others that she didn’t have, Ron continued. “We knew it was what she would want to do when they asked about the [organ] donation,” said the family.

Ron remarked, “Everything blended in so seamlessly. “There wouldn’t be an open casket because we were aware that Anna wanted to be cremated. Anna had already donated her organs, too. Additionally, Anna was a match, which in and of itself was a miracle.

But the most important thing was that we were sure it was what Anna would have preferred.

In order to sew Anna’s skin, muscle, teeth, bone, veins, and arteries onto Connie’s face, Cleveland Clinic surgeons worked for 23 hours on December 10, 2008. The procedure was a great success thanks to the doctors’ long and arduous efforts.

This is wonderful from a technical, surgical, and philosophical standpoint. According to Dr. Maria Siemionow, the Cleveland Clinic surgeon who headed the team performing the transplant surgery, the recipient’s face is adopting and accepting the visage of someone else.

“You can see a real person who is joyful that her life has returned.”

After the transplant, Connie had a difficult road ahead of her, requiring frequent biopsies and a lot of anti-rejection medication.

Connie’s face was transplanted in the hopes that it would restore her to some degree of normalcy, although there were concerns that it would not work. That might have caused a variety of issues, including dying. Fortunately, Connie survived, but her path to recovery was difficult.

Since her donor provided the face muscles, she had to relearn how to speak. Connie even had to relearn how to walk after spending several days in bed. Additionally, several scents that she had to “learn” had been forgotten by her brain, like those of coffee and chocolate.

surgery on Connie Culp to replace her face
Connie was finally permitted to leave the hospital and check into a nearby motel, fifty-eight days after the face transplant surgery.

“You know, it was a little scary when I walked out,” Connie said looking back. “Due to their white uniforms, all I could see up front were my doctors. I didn’t even notice the journalists. I think that was the one day when I was delighted to be blind.

After a while, she was able to travel back to Unionport, Ohio, which is located about an hour outside of Pittsburgh. Even after experiencing hell, she never lost her spirit or sense of humor.

I was still making jokes from the beginning, she said. It’s a miracle, she continued. “I believed I would have to remain in this appearance for the rest of my life.”

Connie understood right away that undergoing a face transplant was more about increasing her function than it was about regaining her appearance.

She told the Post-Gazette, “The importance of a face transplant was getting my mouth back in order and letting me smile again.

And now, for example, I’m able to consume solid food and drink from a cup. I used to have to only eat soft things and use a straw constantly.

Connie’s life was once again altered by the transplant. She started taking her dog for walks while she and her buddies played darts. She claimed that, most significantly, people stopped glancing at her. Surgery to replace the patient’s face was a huge success. She felt “stronger” and “more positive” about herself as a result of it.

She was unable to save her sight, and she was left legally blind with only partial vision in her left eye.

“I just assumed that nobody else would ever want me, walking around like I was,” she stated. I am aware that I am not as stupid as Tom has always said.

Connie was able to speak, laugh, smell, and taste her food once more. Most significantly, she regained her confidence and even began dating.

She received a kiss from the man she was seeing, who assured her that she was still Connie. He also remarked that I was still as gorgeous as ever.

She claimed, “I feel gorgeous when I use makeup.

Sadly, Connie Culp’s story had a tragic conclusion. According to Cleveland Clinic spokesman Andrea Pacetti, she died in 2020 as a result of complications from an infection that had nothing to do with her transplant. When she passed away, the woman who underwent the first face transplant in the US was 57 years old.

“Connie was an incredibly brave, vibrant woman and an inspiration to many,” said Dr. Frank Papay, chief of the Dermatology and Plastic Surgery Institute at Cleveland Clinic and a member of Connie’s surgical team, in a statement to CNN.

She had been the longest-living face transplant patient to date, which, according to Papay, demonstrated her strength. She was a brilliant pioneer and gave humanity a lasting gift by choosing to go through a sometimes frightening treatment.

Connie Culp was a trailblazer and a role model for many. Despite suffering terrible wounds, she never gave up and recovered even more powerfully. We firmly feel she has improved the world, and we also hope she has attained peace.

Please forward this story to your Facebook contacts in honor of Connie Culp and the medical professionals that gave her a new face and saved her life.

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