National Geographic’s amazing journey with youngest face transplant recipient

SHARE National Geographic’s amazing journey with youngest face transplant recipient

A surgical resident carefully cradles Katie Stubblefield’s head to keep it still in the intensive care unit of the Cleveland Clinic after the 31-hour face transplant featured in “The Story of a Face” on the cover of the September issue of National Geographic. | Photograph by Lynn Johnson/National Geographic

On March 25, 2014, Katie Stubblefield found texts from another girl on her boyfriend’s phone. She confronted him and he broke up with her. Distraught, the Mississippi teenager took her brother’s hunting rifle, jammed the barrel under her chin and pulled the trigger.

“Gone were part of her forehead; her nose and sinuses; her mouth, except for the corners of her lips; and much of her mandible and maxilla, the bones that make up the jaws and front of the face,” Joanna Connors writes in an extraordinary article, “Katie’s New Face,” in the September National Geographic magazine.

Last year Stubblefield became the 40th recipient of a face transplant and, at 21, the youngest ever.

First surgeons had to save her life, had to find a way to cover the hole blown in the middle of her face. They built a crude nose and upper lip from thigh tissue, a chin and lower lip from her Achilles tendon. Scanning her sister’s jaw as a model, they built Katie a jaw out of titanium.

The result was a noseless, lipless mask, criss-crossed with deep scars that Katie playfully nicknamed “Shrek.”

Attaching Katie Stubblefield’s new face took 15 hours, the transplanted cheeks flushing as surgeons connected major arteries.

She went on the transplant list. After a year, in May 2017, a donor face became available. The operation, at the Cleveland Clinic, the nation’s center for face transplant surgery, took 31 hours, the first 16 carefully detaching the donor face. There is an extraordinary, fold-out photo in the National Geographic showing surgeons gathered around the disembodied face, hands folded reverently, gazing down at it.

Attaching the face took another 15 hours, the cheeks of Katie’s new face flushing as surgeons connected major arteries.

The editors of National Geographic chose to put Katie, pre-surgery, on its cover, in profile, holding flowers, which is where I noticed her at a newsstand on my way through O’Hare last week. I flipped through the magazine, asking myself, “Do I really want this in the house?” I put it back. At Denver, I saw it a second time, and passed again.

The cover of the September issue of National Geographic features a pre-transplant portrait of Katie Stubblefield. The photographer wanted to show “her inner beauty and her pride and determination.” | Photo by Maggie Steber/National Geographic

The cover of the September issue of National Geographic features a pre-transplant portrait of Katie Stubblefield. The photographer wanted to show “her inner beauty and her pride and determination.” | Photo by Maggie Steber/National Geographic

Back at Chicago, I bought a copy, wondering about the reaction to a story that some readers, editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg admitted, “may find very difficult to look at.”

“This just showed up on newsstands about a week ago,” Goldberg said. “In terms of digital, this story is our best-read story of the year, our most-viewed Instagram story ever. This has been one of our best stories on Snapchat. Our top video on YouTube this year. People are not shying away from this content.”

That’s very encouraging. One reason people with disabilities, particularly facial differences, confront additional troubles going about their daily lives, is that the public rarely sees them. The more they are seen, the less alarming they become. My gut told me that people in these situations appreciate the publicity, but wanting to check, I spoke Friday with Howard Jones, a CTA employee stopping by the University of Illinois Craniofacial Center to adjust the prosthetic that covers the missing left portion of his face — the result of cancer behind his eye.

“Any exposure is always good,” said Jones. “That’s how we become accustomed and oblivious to it. If you’ve never seen something, it’s going to be shocking the first time you see it. If you see it more often, you have less of these odd reactions.”

The article speaks not only to the grit of Katie Stubblefield and her family, of advances in medicine, not to mention its expense — face transplants are considered experimental, so are not covered by insurance or Medicare; the cost was born by the Department of Defense, which has many soldiers with traumatic facial injuries. It also is a reminder of the power of a magazine, even in this era of faltering old media. National Geographic had the resources to spend two years documenting Katie Stubblefield’s story and devotes 56 pages of the September issue to telling it.

“We’re on a journey from reverence to relevance,” said Goldberg, of the magazine founded in 1888. “We have changed what we’re doing in a lot of ways. In a lot of ways we cover the same thing we always have covered: animal science, innovation, the human journey. We’re covering climate change, saving species and the extinction crisis, race and gender. We’re on the cutting edge of science. This is such an important topic; I’ve been amazingly encouraged by the response to this story.”

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