Transplant Doc Denies Woman Tried Suicide

The French doctor behind the world's first partial face transplant insisted Monday that his patient did not try to kill herself before being mauled by her dog — even as a British newspaper quoted her as saying she had.

The apparent contradiction was just one of the mysteries surrounding last week's groundbreaking operation that grafted a nose, chin and lips onto a 38-year-old woman whose face had been severely disfigured by her pet Labrador.

In her hometown, neighbors said the mother of two teenage daughters generally kept to herself before the surgery and wore a surgical mask to hide her face when she walked her new dog.

The case has raised questions about the ethics of performing such surgery on someone who may have suffered psychological troubles in the past.

London's Sunday Times reported the woman acknowledged in a cell phone interview that she took an overdose of sleeping pills during a fit of depression this spring. That night, she was mauled by her own Labrador, in circumstances still unclear.

The woman said the reason for her suicide attempt was "secret," according to the newspaper, whose account was sharply contested by transplant surgeon Jean-Michel Dubernard, who was in charge of one of the two teams that carried out the procedure Nov. 27.

"She did not try to commit suicide, I have had to say this 10 times," Dubernard told The Associated Press by telephone. He declined to let AP speak to the woman.

"She is fine — perfect," he said. "Good general condition, graft looking perfect, psychology — OK."

Dubernard said the woman has not been paid for telling her story but he conceded a British news organization that he did not name paid $3,530 to one of her daughters for a picture of her before the mauling.

The surgeon, who also led teams that performed a hand transplant in 1998 and the world's first double forearm transplant in 2000, said the woman would receive royalties from selling images of her new face in a deal set up by one of his friends.

"I do not want photographers to make money off this poor lady," Dubernard said.

At a news conference Friday, Dubernard said the woman had taken a pill to try to sleep after a fight with one of her daughters. But he denied she tried to kill herself.

Doctors, citing French laws protecting the anonymity of patients, have refused to identify the patient.

The partial face was donated by the family of a woman who was declared brain dead. Her identity also has not been made public.

But the Sunday Times, citing unidentified doctors, said the donor was a 38-year-old woman who had hanged herself. Dubernard and French officials refused to discuss specifics.

"I don't see what the problem is, whether she was hit by a car or committed suicide," said Carine Camby, head of a Health Ministry agency that coordinates organ procurement. She refused to say how the donor died.

The transplant patient's severe facial injuries made it difficult for her to speak and eat, her doctors have said. But they have given conflicting information about when the mauling occurred: One statement from the hospital said May, another June.

Neighbors said the woman was an animal lover who bought a smaller dog after the attack. Her Labrador was put down.

Many in her modest housing complex of small, red-and-white apartment buildings in Marly, 120 miles northeast of Paris, did not realize the woman's face had been mutilated. They did not want to pry — and only learned of her story from news reports about the transplant.

"Every evening, I saw her out walking, wearing a mask," said Belgassem Kahouri, a 57-year-old neighbor. "I assumed she had an allergy or some problem breathing, maybe trouble with pollution."

Moossa al-Karkouri, a 20-year-old student, said: "She did not speak to people much, except maybe to say 'bonjour.'"

The patient's mother declined to be interviewed, saying she was overwhelmed by the attention to the case and worried about the effect it would have on her two granddaughters.

One of the patient's daughters reportedly told French media that the dog tried to wake her mother and had no intention of harming her — a scenario that a local dog trainer said was probable.

"The dog undoubtedly wanted to re-establish contact with his master, in any way he could," said Pascal Duplouy, who had no contact with the animal in question.

"When a dog is in a state of panic, it can scratch and scratch and scratch his master's face, to try to wake her, without realizing the harm it's doing," he said.