Face transplant patient wants 'normal life'

May 21, 2009 12:11:36 PM PDT
The Massachusetts man who received the nation's second face transplant asked for a mirror four days after the operation. "I just wanted to see what the new Jim looked like," James Maki said in an interview with The Boston Globe published Thursday, his first public statements since the April 9 procedure.

Maki stared in wonder and told the doctor who performed the operation, Bohdan Pomahac, that he couldn't believe he looked so much like he used to.

Pomahac asked what he thought.

"I'm happy," Maki said.

His daughter, who just graduated from college, cried with joy when she first saw her father.

Maki, 59, still is at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston recovering, but is scheduled to go home in about a week. He said he'd like to finish his degree and maybe work with fellow Vietnam veterans.

Maki's face was disfigured in June 2005 when he fell onto the electrified third rail at a Boston subway station. He lost his nose, upper lip, cheeks, the roof of his mouth, as well as muscle, bone, and nerves.

For years he rarely went out because people would recoil when they saw him.

Maki, who grew up in Amherst, said he also struggled with substance abuse.

"My life up to that point was a mess," he said. "I knew if I had the surgery I'd have a chance for a normal life again."

He never thought about the possibility of a face transplant until 2007 when he saw Pomahac on television discussing the face transplant program he planned to start at the hospital.

He underwent the 17-hour operation after a Brookline man, Joseph Helfgot, died following a heart transplant. The men were about the same age and had similar skin tone.

The hospital did not charge Maki for the operation, which cost about $200,000. The doctors donated their time.

Maki has since met with Helfgot's widow and Isabelle Dinoire, the French woman who underwent the world's first face transplant.

"She seems to be doing really well," Maki said. "It made me feel good."

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