Hillsville man's face transplant transforms his life

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Richard Lee Norris lost the lower part of his face in a gun accident in 1997. Seven months after surgery, his life is returning to normal.


BALTIMORE, MARYLAND — The 37-year-old Hillsville man who received the most extensive face transplant surgery ever says his life has been transformed.

The University of Maryland released details today on the recovery of Richard Lee Norris, on the surgery completed to date seven months ago. 

Norris moved to Hillsville after he was injured in a 1997 gun accident, losing much of his upper and lower jaws as well as his lips and nose, according to an update from his doctors. The transplant surgery, completed on March 20 at the University of Maryland Medical Center, included replacement of both jaws, teeth, tongue, and skin and underlying nerve and muscle tissue from scalp to neck.

"For the past 15 years I lived as a recluse hiding behind a surgical mask and doing most of my shopping at night when less people were around," Norris said in a news release. "I can now go out and not get the stares and have to hear comments that people would make. People used to stare at me because of my disfigurement. Now they can stare at me in amazement and in the transformation I have taken. I am now able to walk past people and no one even gives me a second look. My friends have moved on with their lives, starting families and careers. I can now start working on the new life given back to me."

In the time since the surgery, Norris said he spends a lot of time fishing and golfing and has been enjoying time with family and friends.

"I do still have follow-up appointments with a lot of different doctors and therapists to ensure everything is healing up properly," Norris said in the news release. "I have been undergoing physical therapy and also speech therapy. I have been doing very well regaining my speech back. Each day it improves a little more."

Norris continues to gain sensation in his face and is able to smile and show expression. His doctors say the motor function on the right side of his face is about 80 percent normal, and motor function on the left side is about 40 percent. He eats primarily by mouth and is able to smell and taste.

Norris’ historic 36-hour full face transplant was led by Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M.D., D.D.S., professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and chief of plastic, reconstructive and maxillofacial surgery at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center. 

Norris’ surgery marked the first time in the world that a face transplant was performed by a team of plastic and reconstructive surgeons with specialized training and expertise in craniofacial surgery and reconstructive microsurgery.

"Our goal for Richard from the beginning was to restore facial harmony and functional balance in the most aesthetic manner possible through the complex transplantation of the facial bones, nerves, muscles, tongue, teeth and the associated soft tissues," says Dr. Rodriguez. "Richard is exceeding my expectations this soon after his surgery, and he deserves great deal of credit for the countless hours spent practicing his speech and strengthening his new facial muscles. He’s one of the most courageous and committed individuals I know."

Within days after surgery, Norris was also working with physical, occupational and speech therapists to begin the detailed process of re-gaining functional use of his new face, tongue and jaw. A significant part of the surgery was dedicated to preserving and re-connecting nerves from the donor face to Norris’ own nerves. The rehabilitation team continues to work with Richard to train these nerves to talk to each other to restore normal movement and speech.

As with any transplant surgery, the potential rejection of the donated tissue is an aspect to be carefully monitored. Norris’ complex immunosuppression regimen is managed by Rolf Barth, M.D., associate professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. 

Dr. Barth’s research focuses on ways to reduce rejection of donated organs and minimize the side effects of long-term immunosuppressive use after transplantation.

"We began this research more than 10 years ago when we saw the devastating injuries sustained by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan from improvised explosive devices," says Stephen T. Bartlett, M.D., Peter Angelos Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and surgeon-in-chief and senior vice president at the University of Maryland Medical System. "Now having seen how this surgery has changed Richard’s life, we are even more dedicated to researching ways to improve facial transplantation and helping more patients, including military veterans, return to normal lives after undergoing this same surgery."

Efforts are underway to expand the University of Maryland facial transplantation program to serve additional patients, including military personnel and veterans wounded in action. 

Norris’ face transplant was the result of more than 10 years of research made possible by grant funding received from the Office of Naval Research in the Department of Defense and secured by Dr. Bartlett to research composite vascularized allografts for soldiers with facial injuries caused by improvised explosive devices.

"The results we’re seeing in Mr. Norris today are a reflection of the collaboration between our research and clinical teams who have worked tirelessly to give him a return to normalcy," says E. Albert Reece, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland and dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.