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Historic face transplant gives suicide survivor 'second chance' at life

WARNING - POTENTIALLY DISTURBING CONTENT After attempting suicide three years ago, 21-year-old Katie Stubblefield became the youngest person in the US to receive a face transplant.

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The then-18-year-old Katie faced a number of emotion hurdles, having just found out her boyfriend had been texting another girl and recently having her appendix and gallbladder removed in surgery for gastrointestinal problems, she tried to commit suicide by shooting herself with a .308-caliber hunting rifle in a bathroom of her Mississippi home in March 2014.

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Katie's older brother, Robert, heard the gunfire found her covered in blood, and recalled, "her face was gone".

Having been left heavily disfigured in the failed suicide attempt, having lost her forehead, nose, sinuses, mouth except for the corners of her lips and much of the bones that make up the jaws and front of her face. Her eyes remained, but they were askew and badly damaged.

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“I had never thought of doing that before,” Ms Stubblefield said of her attempt to kill herself. “I felt so guilty that I had put my family through such pain. I felt horrible.”

"There was an older trauma surgeon who basically told us, 'It's the worst wound that I've ever seen of its kind,' and he said, 'The only thing I can think of that would really give her functional life again is a face transplant,' " Robb Stubblefield, Katie's father, said.

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"I was standing there thinking, 'What do you mean, a face transfer? What do you do?' "

Up to that point, none of the family had heard of this medical procedure, which involved transplanting all or parts of the facial tissue, including skin, bone, nerves and blood vessels from a donor cadaver onto the recipient. 

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"I had no clue what a face transplant was," Katie said. "When my parents helped explain everything to me, I was very excited to get a face again and to have function again."

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Katie waited for a suitable donor for over a year before Andrea Schneider, a 31-year-old organ donor who had recently passed away, was found as a match. Ms Schneider's grandmother, Sandra Bennington, made the decision to donate Andrea's face. 

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The transplant, which was performed by 11 surgeons in the span of a 31-hour surgery began May 4, 2017, and aimed to restore Stubblefield’s face and functions such as chewing, breathing and swallowing.

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"I am able to touch my face now, and it feels amazing," said Katie. Her father, Robb, helps to decipher some of her thoughts, as Katie still has some trouble speaking clearly: "You take it for granted, the different components of our faces -- the bone, the tissue, the muscle, everything -- but when it's gone, you recognize the big need. Then when you receive a transplant, you're so thankful."

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 Katie plans on getting her life back on track soon, and intends to attend college online, to pursue a career in counselling and motivational speaking, specifically to raise awareness about suicide and suicide prevention.
“So many people have helped me. Now I want to help other people” she said.