US woman who shot herself with hunting rifle is youngest person to get face transplant

US woman who shot herself with hunting rifle is youngest person to get face transplant
PHOTO: National Geographic

Ms Katie Stubblefield was just 18 when she attempted suicide by putting a hunting rifle below her chin and shooting herself.

She survived the shooting but her suicide attempt put her on a journey to become the youngest person in the United States to receive a face transplant.

Now, at 22, she is featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine's September issue, released on Tuesday (Aug 14) in a piece titled "The Story of a Face".

She is also featured in National Geographic's full-length documentary Katie's Face.

According to a report by CNN, Ms Stubblefield suffered several problems in the days leading up to her suicide.

She had chronic gastrointestinal problems which she had to undergo surgery for, she had just broken up with her then-boyfriend and her mother was abruptly fired from teaching at the same school that she attended.

At an all-time low, a rash decision to kill herself changed Ms Stubblefield's life.

Ms Stubblefield lost parts of her forehead, her nose and sinuses, most of her mouth, and bones that make up her jaw and structures of her face. Her eyes remained but they were badly damaged, news reports said.

Dr Brian Gastman at Cleveland Clinic who attended to her after she was transferred there some time after the incident told National Geographic that Ms Stubblefield's injury was one of the worst face traumas he had ever seen.

He said: "Her brain was basically exposed, and I mean, we're talking seizures and infections and all kinds of problems. Forget the face transplant; we're talking about just being alive."

Ms Stubblefield told National Geographic that she has no memory of her suicide attempt or the many surgeries to mend her face - her parents were the ones to tell her.

She said she was shocked: "I never thought of doing that ever before, and so on hearing about it, I just didn't know how to handle it."

"I felt so guilty that I had put my family through such pain. I felt horrible."

In 2017, three years after she shot herself, it was decided that she would have a face transplant - an experimental and extensive surgery, only the 40th known to the world.

Her donor - Adrea Schneider - was a 31-year-old woman who died of a drug overdose.

Her procedure involved replacing her full facial tissue - transplanting the scalp, forehead, upper and lower eyelids, eye sockets, nose, upper cheeks, upper jaw and half of lower jaw, upper teeth, lower teeth, partial facial nerves, muscles and skin.

The surgery, which took 31 hours, was a success.

Ms Stubblefield now takes medication to reduce the risk of organ rejection, and will do so for the rest of her life. She also has to continue with physical and occupational therapy for the time being.

With her new face, Ms Stubblefield now has a future to look forward to. She hopes to go to college and eventually find a career in counselling and motivational speaking.

"So many people have helped me; now I want to help other people," she told National Geographic.

She hopes to speak to teenagers about suicide prevention, echoing what she told CNN: "Life is precious, and life is beautiful."

HELPLINES

  • Samaritans of Singapore (SOS): 1800-2214444
  • Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-2837019
  • Sage Counselling Centre: 1800-5555555
  • Care Corner Mandarin Counselling: 1800-3535800

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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