Richard Norris Face Transplant: Woman Meets Man Who Received Her Brother’s Face

Face transplant surgery helped preserve the life of Richard Norris, who was horribly disfigured after nearly blowing off most of his face in a shotgun incident 18 years ago. Norris underwent more than 30 surgeries before the face transplant from donor Josh Aversano could take place.

Richard Norris’ face transplant operations were conducted in an effort to restore his facial features as much as possible and to correct the damage caused after he shot himself in the face. The long and painful surgeries offered few signs of improvement and left Norris depressed and contemplating suicide.

A tragedy which struck the Aversano family offered a glimmer of hope for Richard Norris. Joshua Aversano, 21, was killed in a car accident. The young man’s family agreed to a face transplant, and their generous gift laid the foundation for an operation that transformed the life of the shotgun accident victim.

Rebekah Aversano only recently saw her brother Joshua’s face on a different man for the very first time. 60 Minutes is airing a special about the face transplant and the meeting between Rebekah Aversano and Richard Norris on Sunday evening. Norris wanted to thank the Aversano family for “saving” his life and was reportedly eager to meet the loved ones of his benefactor.

Norris, 39, received the teeth, tongue, and a jaw during the face transplant. The lengthy surgery was reportedly one of the most expensive and complex face transplant surgeries in history.

“Do you mind if I touch it? Wow, this is the face I grew up with,” Rebekah Aversano said after meeting Richard Norris.

Gwen Aversano, Joshua Aversano’s mother, said that the family knew agreeing to the face transplant was the “right thing to do.” The chances of finding a perfect match for the face transplant operation were reportedly very low.

“We can definitely see our son in him. Some of the facial features would definitely be our son, so we could see similarities, very much so. We are just so pleased we have been able to help him, even though we had such a tragic loss, we were able to give someone else the benefit of our son. I asked him [Richard Norris] if it really was worth the risk, he said ‘absolutely’ even though there was a 50 per cent chance it would fail.”

Richard Norris talks with the Aversano family regularly and updates them about his progress and health. Joshua Aversano was killed after being hit by a minivan while crossing a street. Norris has reportedly experienced several face transplant rejection issues. One of the rejection issues involved a sunburn which prompted his doctors to instruct him to immediately board a plane and return to the hospital. The sunburn rejection issues involved a three-week hospital stay.

The face transplant surgery has reportedly enabled doctors to learn how to better treat soldiers and others with severe facial injuries. Richard Norris was 22 when his face exploded after the shotgun accident. He reportedly came home after an evening of drinking and got into an argument with his mother. During the verbal confrontation, Norris is said to have grabbed a shotgun from the gun cabinet and said he was going to shoot himself.

After the shotgun wound, Norris still had the ability to taste but had lost the sense of smell. The face, unlike organs typically transplanted, is more like a hand or foot and is regarded as a foreign object by Norris’ body. For the rest of his life, Norris will take a cocktail of anti-rejection medications that will weaken his immune system and will reportedly make him vulnerable to other health issues. He cannot smoke, drink, or risk sunburn due to concerns involving rejection issues.

“Those 10 years of hell I lived through, it has given me such a wealth of knowledge,” Norris said. “I am now able to walk past people and no one even gives me a second look.”

Before the face transplant surgery, Norris primarily went out in pubic only at night and then wore both a hat and a mask. His doctors refer to Norris as a “remarkable man” who did not think of himself throughout the face transplant process but of others who could be helped by what was learned during the operations.

The face transplant surgery was made possible through Naval Research as part of an effort to help wounded warriors. Before the Richard Norris face transplant, such a procedure had been performed only twice in America. The first partial face transplant took place in France in 2005 on a patient who was mauled by a dog. Four of the 27 patients who have undergone face transplants since have died.

Doctors gave Richard Norris a 50/50 chance of surviving the face transplant surgery. Once the operation began, there was no turning back. If his body rejected the procedure, there would be nothing left of his face, and Norris would have died. A face transplant is expected to last approximately 20 to 30 years.

[Image via: University of Maryland]