Ohio, United States — The first person to receive a near-total face transplant in the US, Connie Culp has died at the age of 57.
The Cleveland clinic, where the procedure took place 12 years ago confirmed the news on Wednesday. A Cleveland Clinic spokeswoman Andrea Pacetti told CNN that Culp’s death was unrelated to her transplant and that it was of complications from an infection.
“Connie was an incredibly brave, vibrant woman and an inspiration to many,” said Dr. Frank Papay, chair of Cleveland Clinic’s Dermatology and Plastic Surgery Institute, who was part of Connie’s surgical team.
“Her strength was evident in the fact that she had been the longest-living face transplant patient to date,” Papay said in a statement. “She was a great pioneer and her decision to undergo a sometimes daunting procedure is an enduring gift for all of humanity.”
The 57-year-old was a mother of two and had lost her mid-portion of her face after being shot by her husband in 2004. Culp was left partially blind, unable to smell and speak, and she had to rely on a surgical opening in her neck to breathe.
Culp had underwent a 22-hour transplant surgery led by Dr. Maria Siemionow in December 2008 where the face of a deceased donor was shaped and fitted to Culp. The layers of tissue, bone, muscle and blood vessels, nerve grafts, arteries and veins were connected, and the doctors had filled in the missing parts of her face as well.
The doctors involved in Culp’s treatment emphasized that her surgery was not cosmetic, but to restore basic functions. Culp’s surgery was the first ever near-total face transplant in the country.
Culp met the family of her donor, Anna Kasper of Lakewood, Ohio in 2010. Kasper’s widow, Ron Kasper told The Pain Dealer that the family had agreed to donate her face to Culp’s surgery saying that, “the overriding factor was we knew it was what Anna would’ve wanted.”
Culp later on became an advocate of organ donation and delivered speeches about her experience’d to the world.
She told CNN on 2010 that she was happy with the transplant. “I can smell now,” she said. “I can eat steak; I can eat almost any solid foods – so it’s all getting better.”