What to Know
An NYU Langone Health plastic surgeon and his patient spoke publicly for the first time Thursday after a milestone face transplant
26-year-old Cameron Underwood's medical journey began due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2016
NYU Langone Health plastic surgeon Dr. Eduardo D. Rodriguez explained in full detail the milestone surgery
The remarkable aftermath of an extraordinary surgery and medical odyssey was center stage Thursday, as a plastic surgeon and his patient spoke publicly for the first time following a milestone face transplant that occurred earlier this year.
NYU Langone Health plastic surgeon Dr. Eduardo D. Rodriguez explained in full detail why his 26-year-old patient, Cameron Underwood, was the ideal candidate for a face transplant and the surgical journey the Yuba City, California, native lived through.
“We ultimately feel that every patient deserves a second chance and Cameron, certainly, was worthy of it,” Rodriguez said.
Underwood’s medical journey began due to a self-inflicted facial gunshot wound in June 2016.
As a result of the traumatic injuries sustained, and despite several attempts at conventional reconstruction, Underwood ended up missing a great portion of his lower jaw, all but one tooth, and his nose. He also suffered extensive damage to his upper face region and palate, which severely impacted his ability to lead a normal life.
On July 13, 2017, 13 months after his initial injury, Underwood was placed on the waiting list for a face transplant. Underwood, who resides in California, was required to travel to New York City for monthly evaluations, including clinical, psychological and social exams.
However, before the transplant could take place, the search for the ideal donor long began.
“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” Rodriguez said.
That’s when William Fisher, a 23-year-old Manhattan resident, a chess champion, aspiring writer and filmmaker, and a student at Johns Hopkins University, comes into play and unexpectedly became a hero.
Fisher, who is fondly remembered by his family and friends as extremely intelligent, funny, and compassionate, was a registered organ donor, a status he designated in his teens.
According to Rodriguez, “Willy,” as he was affectionately known, died unexpectedly.
Still deeply saddened by the loss of her son, Sally acknowledged the importance of her son’s decision to be an organ donor and gave the family's consent.
“My son’s death was a tragedy,” Sally said. “I am thankful that, in honoring his decision, we were able to give life to others, and especially that Will and Dr. Rodriguez have given Cameron and his family a chance to recapture their dreams.”
Underwood’s surgery began Jan. 5, lasted about 25 hours and took a team of more than 100 medical professionals, including surgeons and nurses.
This is the third face transplant performed under Rodriguez’ medical leadership. In August 2015, he and his team at NYU Langone performed what is widely considered the most extensive face transplant on record.
However, Underwood’s face transplant set several important medical milestones including having the shortest period of time from injury to transplant in the United States; the longest distance traveled for a face transplant, with 2,800 miles; one of the shortest wait times for a donor (six months); and the fact that financial reimbursement was provided by commercial insurance.
Additionally, there were also significant improvements in medical care compared to a previous patient, including reductions in surgical time and hospital stay, which was roughly reduced by half.
Underwood’s face transplant was also deemed the most technologically advanced in modern medicine, including the first use of a 3-D printed donor facial mask in the United States, which doctors provided to Fisher’s family.
Almost 11 months after the transplant, Underwood is still rejection free.
“He’s far more open, far more jovial, far more interactive and I suspect we are going to see much more of this and this gives us confirmation that this operation and the risk that we all take are ultimately worth it,” Rodriguez said, sharing photos of Underwood once again enjoying an active lifestyle and sports, including skydiving.
Underwood and Sally met unexpectedly before the transplant and, subsequently, had a planned meeting post-transplant months after the 25-hour surgery.
“I feel for Cameron and his family that they’ve inherited another family and for Willy’s family as well,” Rodriguez said, adding that "Willy continues to live in Cam. “The families have now been bound by this remarkable gift.”
During Thursday’s press conference, Underwood said his story needed to be told.
“I think it is important to share my story. I hope it inspires others to have hope and to seek help,” he said.
Underwood also publicly expressed his gratitude toward every person involved in his medical journey, transplant and subsequent recovery, including thanking, through tears, Sally and her son Willy.
“I’m so grateful to have a face transplant because it has given me a second chance at life,” Underwood said, adding he no longer gets stares or questions from strangers.
“Thank you for not giving up on me,” Underwood said to his supporters. “It hasn’t been easy, but it has been worth it.”
Summarizing Underwood’s medical odyssey, Rodriguez said: “The life that had been in pause, is now back in play.”