In a 16-hour surgery, Boston doctors just completed the first full face transplant for a black patient, who also happened to be the oldest patient to ever undergo the procedure.
Robert Chelsea was having car trouble one Monday night in August 2013, so he pulled onto the shoulder of a highway outside his home near Long Beach, Calif. Soon after, a drunk driver slammed into his car, and it burst into flames. Chelsea, a sales manager for a rubber-stamp business, was rushed to a hospital with third-degree burns covering almost half his body.
All Chelsea remembers is his car flying into the air, coming down and blowing up — with him inside it.
After being transferred to the University of California Irvine Medical Center, Chelsea spent four months drifting in and out of consciousness as doctors fought to save his life. He had 18 surgeries in that time—mostly skin grafting for his burns, but also abdominal operations to treat serious gastrointestinal complications that had developed as his body struggled to stay alive. Blood pressure medications shunted blood flow to his heart and away from his extremities, leading to tissue death in his lips, nose and fingers. One of his surgeons, Dr. Victor Joe, called him “one of the sickest patients we’ve had.”
Chelsea left UC Irvine in December 2013 with his life—but by the end of his recovery he would lose his lips, the end of his nose, several fingertips and two-thirds of his intestines. His face was severely scarred, and his hands were covered in cadaver skin that matched Chelsea’s skin tone but never quite mimicked its texture; Chelsea called it his “snakeskin.” All told, he would eventually carry the skin of three different people. An organ donor himself before the accident, he had no idea how difficult replacing his skin would prove to be.
He turned down the first face he was offered. It was a fine face, one that could have taken him off the transplant waiting list after just a couple months. But…