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Katie Stubblefield- a story about love, medical miracles, and three faces

One of the most incredible stories you will ever read is of Katie Stubblefield. How at the young age of 18 she lost her face and how after 3 years of wait, at the age of 21 she finally got a new one.

Did you know there are only a few species in the world that recognize their faces back in the mirror? This unique group involves great apes, European magpies, bottlenose dolphins and Asian elephants apart from us. We often tend to always notice our faces superficially without realizing, how blessed we are. Not just for how we look but also because a face is such an important organ. You face defines your entire being it is your identity, they express you, your basic emotions like anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise or even mask them when you want to. They also help you live life fullest with your basic senses. You can gorge on your favorite meal, you can experience the earthy smell after the rains which is so serene, you can kiss your loved ones and experience affection all with your face. Humans are born looking for faces, just like how a newborn kid will look for his mother’s face and feel the warmth. Our faces have helped us become what we are today. Harvard Medical School psychologist Nancy Etcoff in her book Survival of the Prettiest says, “Appearance is the most public part of the self. It is our sacrament, the visible self that the world assumes to be a mirror of the invisible, inner self,”

Now go to the mirror and look at your face, how would it be like to lose it?

Katie Stubblefield was 18 when she lost her face. That young girl’s face is gone forever and exists only in memories or pictures.

She once said that she never felt herself to be beautiful. Despite have flawless skin and a perfect smile, like many others Katie who was a very beautiful girl, probably beautiful enough to walk the runway, thought about herself. Her mother Alesia was not surprised and said, “Katie has a big heart for other people, but she was always so hard on herself.” When I looked at the photos again, I saw a hint of fragility in her face, a glimmer of the cost of being perfect.”

When in high school Katie’s family made two prominent moves. They moved from Lakeland, Florida, where she has spent her entire life, to Owensboro, Kentucky. A year later they moved again to Oxford, Mississippi. Her father taught at a small Christian school. As for Katie, she got into school as a junior and fell in love with a classmate. The couple soon started talking about marriage and as per her older sister Olivia, “This one was just so serious for so young. She just grew up so fast that year.I think she was ready to have some stability and some consistency.”

It was the senior year that changed her world entirely. The teenager was already suffering from chronic gastrointestinal troubles. She also had her appendix taken out the year before which led to a few complications that eventually led to the removal of Katie’s gallbladder in January of her senior year. Two months later, Alesia was abruptly fired as the schoolmaster refused to renew their contract.

After going through this, once Katie picked up her boyfriend’s phone, and to her surprise, there were texts to another girl. When she asked him about it, he decided to break up with her.

Anxious, hurt and angry Katie went to Robert, her elder brother’s place. She was pacing back and forth and rapidly texting at the same time, looking pretty stressed. Robert called her mother and the two started talking how depressed Katie had been when she went to the bathroom, picked up Robert’s .308-caliber hunting rifle, Katie put it below her chin, and pulled the trigger. This startled Robert and when he kicked the locked door, he found his little sister covered in blood.

The incident caused Katie to lose most of her face. She lost her forehead; her nose and sinuses; her mouth, except for the corners of her lips; and much of her mandible and maxilla, the bones that make up the jaws and front of the face. The only thing left was her eyes, which were askew and badly damaged.

Her first treatment happened in Memphis, Tennessee, where Katie was initially operated on immediately after the incident, doctors had managed to save her life against all odds, but their attempt to cover the enormous wound with a tissue graft taken from her abdomen did not work. The first doctor Brian Gastman Katie was exposed to 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.” As per, Gastman said, this was one of the worst face traumas he’d ever encountered in his 27 years of practice. Apart from the disturbing wound to her face, she had a traumatic brain injury from the bullet’s immense force to her frontal lobe, optic nerve, and pituitary gland. There was also damage to her pituitary that in turn threw her hormones and sodium levels greatly out of proportion, which can be extremely lethal. Gastman organized a multidisciplinary team of 15 specialists to address all her issues, from endocrinology to psychiatry to treat Katie.

After many extensive surgeries, Gastman and a team of specialists stabilized Katie and patched her face. They repaired shattered bones and created a nasal passage and protected her brain, Gastman made a rudimentary nose and upper lip from her thigh tissue rolled up inside out. To work for her chin and lower lip, he used a tissue of her Achilles tendon. The doctors also made a new lower jawbone from titanium and a piece of her fibula with flesh still attached, using as a guide a 3D model made from a scan of Olivia’s jaw. Then finally to move Katie’s eyes closer together, they attached to her skull a distraction device, adjusting it every day.

This saved her life but Katie called her face, Shrek.

She became her parent's full-time responsibility. They lived on another family member’s kindness and her facial surgeries were supported by Medicaid and doctors who wanted to study facial transplants.

At 21, after three years Katie finally was getting a new face. This happened when the doctors had decided to give Katie a partial face transplant keeping her cheeks, eyebrows, and forehead. But while doing so, they realized she might look better with a full transplant because the donor’s face was larger and her skin shade was darker.

Medicare and Medicaid don’t pay for face transplants. But thanks to the American Society for Reconstructive Transplantation has made way for people to get insured about this.

A team of eleven doctors worked on Katie. For 16 hours, three to four surgeons worked on her examining every inch of her face with a microscope. The next day Papay, her other trusted doctor walked with the new face to implant on Katie. The scariest part for them was of rejection so acute that her face would have been removed and now her body did not have the strength or tissue or repair. After 31 hours the surgeons finished suturing the top layer of skin, attaching the entire face. There was an applause in the hospital by other residents, nurses and even the doctors.

A few weeks after the surgery Katie couldn’t speak at all. She often moaned in extreme anguish and cried that she was hungry. Her speech was very difficult as she had her donor’s mouth completely. It was almost impossible to understand Katie after the surgery as her voice had a strong nasal timbre.

Katie will most likely live her entire life as an experiment. She had three faces in her life, the one she was born with, the one she had from 18-21 and the one she has now. Doctors are still likely to slim her face, reduce scarring, and improve her eyelids. With her new face, she intends to get back to college and live her life as normally as possible. Katie’s family are not helping teenagers for suicide prevention. Katie’s story shows us, how a small impulsive decision can destroy not only our lives but even our loved ones. This extraordinary story about medical miracles is surely one of its kind and will definitely be remembered for ages to come!

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