In 2004, Connie Culp's husband, Thomas, shot her. He turned the gun on himself, but survived -- and went to prison for seven years. His wife was left clinging to life. The blast shattered her nose, cheeks, the roof of her mouth and an eye. Hundreds of fragments of shotgun pellet and bone splinters were embedded in her face. She needed a tube into her windpipe to breathe. Only her upper eyelids, forehead, lower lip and chin were left.
On December 10, 2008, in a 22-hour operation, Dr. Maria Siemionow led a team of doctors who replaced 80 percent of Culp's face with bone, muscles, nerves, skin and blood vessels from another woman who had just died. It was the fourth face transplant in the world, though the others were not as extensive.
This is a CT scan photo, supplied by Cleveland Clinic, of Culp, after the injury to her face, left, and after the surgery, right.
Five months after Culp underwent the life-changing surgery, she made her first public appearance at a news conference at the Cleveland Clinic on Tuesday, May 5, 2009.
Culp is seen here being helped to the podium by her head surgeon, Dr. Maria Siemionow, right, as well as Renee Bennett, the nurse manager for the Clinic's transplant program, far left, and Pat Lock, a nurse with the transplant team, third from left, before speaking to the media.
Dr. Maria Siemionow explains the complex and controversial face transplant surgery she and her team performed on Culp during the news conference.
In a prepared statement from the Cleveland Clinic, Siemionow said one of the most rewarding things she can do as a surgeon "is to restore the quality of life to a patient."
"Patients with facial disfigurement have very difficult challenges in society," she said. "We hope that one day we may be able to help the tens of thousands of patients who are quietly suffering."
This photo shows the amazing transformation Culp underwent following the surgery. She suffered only one mild rejection episode that was controlled with a single dose of steroid medicines.
And in order to make sure she doesn't suffer another episode like that, Culp must take immune-suppressing drugs for the rest of her life.
It’s been nearly two years since Culp underwent the world’s first near total face transplant — and in that time, she has made incredible strides.
“As we planned, we have removed this extra skin, and essentially she received a face lift, and that really changed that extra skin look into a normal looking face,” Siemionow said.
Over the past several months, Culp has regained sensation in her face as her nerves continue to regenerate. She can now smile and speak more clearly.
“It feels great to go out and not have people gawk at me because I look strange, but it’s OK for people to go out that look different,” Culp said. “Don’t let nobody bring you down because you don’t look the same as somebody else.”
Connie Culp, who underwent the world's first near total face transplant in the U.S. in December 2008, has had her final surgery - and she's ready to face the world with her head held high