NYU Langone Health celebrates landmark second face transplant
Cameron Underwood, 26, reveals his new face at NYU Langone Health on Thursday, Nov. 28 as he continues to recover from the surgery.
Eleven months out from his face transplant surgery at NYU Langone Health, Cameron Underwood is recovering faster than expected, a sign of the huge medical milestones made in the second-ever such procedure at New York University, Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez said on Thursday.
Underwood, from Yuba City, California, revealed his new face alongside Rodriguez at NYU Langone Health on Thursday.
The two talked about the face transplant journey celebrating Underwood’s remarkable recovery, the landmark face transplant achievements made, the importance of organ donors and the hope Underwood’s story can give to others.
In June 2016, Underwood suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound in June 2016, which left him without the majority of his lower jaw, all but one tooth, his nose, and damage to his upper face.
Pointing to a photo of Underwood from that time, Rodriguez said there was “no way conventional surgery could ever bring that patient back to the way he was.”
Cameron Underwood before his face transplant and then pictured months after, on Nov. 26, 2018. Photo Courtesy Mary Spano and Eduardo D. Rodriguez, MD, DDS/Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone Health
“We’re often asked about identity crisis following a face transplant,” he said. “The real identity crisis and major burden is when a person has to live this way, when we understand the limitations of conventional surgery outside and the medicine that we know short of a face transplant. As Cam defined it, his life was in pause.”
Now, 11 months later, that life has been unpaused, after six months waiting for a donor and a 25-hour surgery.
Underwood’s face donor was William Fisher, a 23-year-old Manhattan resident and aspiring filmmaker who was a student at Johns Hopkins University. Fisher had registered as an organ donor when he was a teenager and even talked to his family about what his wishes were, if anything were to happen to him.
“I think that it’s important to share my story to help inspire others to have hope and to seek help. I’m so grateful to have a face transplant because it’s giving me a second chance at life,” Underwood said at NYU Langone Health. “There have been so many amazing advances in surgery, I’m living proof of that, but it only happens because of special people like Will and his family.”
Underwood and Rodriguez’s journey marks the second-ever face transplant at NYU Langone Health and Rodriguez's third such surgery. NYU Langone Health is the only medical center in New York state, and one of just a handful in the country, with a dedicated face transplantation program.
More than 40 face transplants have been performed worldwide, but this particular one led to significant milestones.
Underwood experienced the shortest period of time from injury to transplant in the United States. It was 18 months total from his injury in June 2016 to his surgery on Jan. 5, 2018.
Underwood tried conventional surgeries at first, but they weren’t enough. His mom, Beverly Bailey-Potter, read an article about Rodriguez’s previous face transplant surgeries and reached out to NYU Langone Health.
Once accepted, Underwood then had the shortest wait time for a donor, staying on the organ donation list for just six months until coordinators with LiveOnNY identified Fisher, who ended up being a perfect match.
William Fisher, face transplant donor. Photo Courtesy Fisher Family
But Underwood and his family were in California, meaning they had to travel the longest ever distance for a face transplant, coming to New York City from 2,800 miles away and arriving miraculously amid the “Bomb Cyclone.”
Underwood received financial reimbursement support from commercial insurance — a first for a face transplant case and a “watershed” moment in medicine, said G. Leslie Bernstein, administrator for the Face Transplant Program at NYU Langone Health and the principal negotiator with Underwood’s private insurer.
Underwood’s total time in surgery was 25 hours, way shorter than NYU Langone Health’s first face transplant, which took more than 36 hours. Part of that improvement came from the fact that this was the most technologically advanced face transplant, health officials said. The surgery planning was improved through the use of 3-D computers and 3-D printed cutting guides.
“The life that had been in pause is now back in play,” Rodriguez said. “And he’s not wasting any time getting into it.”
Since his surgery, Underwood has been able to return to hobbies like golf and restoring cars, and even sent Rodriguez a photo of himself skydiving.
“I can at least check off the box that a face transplant can tolerate jumping off of a plane 15,000 feet in the air,” Rodriguez said, joking that he was glad Underwood didn’t ask him before hand.
“But what I think what this photograph confirms is that Cam is living and doing the things he enjoys,” he added. “When [patients] often want to thank us and ask how can they ever thank us, this is the greatest thanks they could ever provide. That they’re back in their lives doing what they enjoy."