Indiana man approved for rare face transplant surgery

Font Size:

INDIANAPOLIS — An Indiana man has been approved for a rare face transplant a decade after he suffered horrible facial burns when he came in contact with a live wire while saving a friend after a car crash.

Mitch Hunter recently was placed on a face transplant list at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and now faces a wait for donor tissue that could last several months or longer, said Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, the hospital’s director of plastic surgery transplantation.

Hunter, a 30-year-old Indianapolis resident, hopes the surgery can help him regain some normalcy in his life and end the stares of strangers he’s endured since the 2001 accident.

“One surgeon said, `We can guarantee that you’ll look 80 percent like you did before, but we’ll shoot for 100 percent,”‘ Hunter told The Indianapolis Star. “I’m like — right on.”

Hunter was 21 and recently discharged from the Army after two years at Fort Bragg, N.C., when a car in which he was riding crashed, toppling a power line. After the crash, he pushed aside a female friend who was thrown from the car onto the live wire.

But in doing so he was jolted with 10,000 volts of electricity that cost him his left leg below his knee, two fingers on one hand and left him with burns that destroyed the skin on his face and eyelids.

He was in and out of hospitals until mid-2005, primarily in Winston-Salem, N.C., undergoing skin grafts. He has a prosthetic leg below the knee and a prosthetic nose.

The 47 surgeries he’s endured on his face have steeled him for what likely will be a 15- to 24-hour surgery, followed by three months to a year of recovery.

After he returned in 2005 to the town of Speedway on Indianapolis’ west side where he grew up, he slowly got his life back on track and stopped hiding himself at home. Still, going out in public draws disturbing stares and questions.

“To have little kids look at him and call him the `boogeyman’ or monster — I can’t imagine what that feels like. Anywhere we go, it’s just the constant stares,” said Billy Ellis, a friend who grew up with Hunter and has helped organize fundraisers for him.

Hunter, who receives disability income, said doctors have told him that the person whose death will create the opportunity for his facial transplant has to be male, have similar skin color, be within 15 to 20 years of his age and have matching tissue characteristics.

Pomahac, who will perform the procedure with a team of doctors, is hopeful the transplant will “substantially improve” Hunter’s facial appearance.

When Hunter heard about the pioneering facial transplant surgery, first done in 2005 in France, he began investigating. Last fall, he twice visited the Boston hospital, which performed the second facial transplant procedure in the U.S. in 2009. Eleven have been done in other countries.

While he waits, not without some anxiety, he’s taking care of his 9-month-old son, Clayton.

He’s given power-of-attorney to his stepmother, in case something happens during the surgery. The hospital also has instructed him to get hepatitis A and B vaccinations, to give up his periodic habit of smoking and to pack a suitcase.

When a donor is found, Pomahac said the transplant needs to be done within about 24 hours.

“The phone call is going to happen someday,” Hunter said. “I try not to think about it too much because the anticipation causes anxiety. It’s always in the back of my mind, but I still have to raise my son and live life.”