A bullet fired from a rifle during a hunting trip left Maurice Desjardins with a severely damaged face.
Despite the efforts of doctors and surgeons, who tried rebuilding the his face with plates, screws and even some bone that came from his leg, he was left with holes in his face instead of a full nose, and a mouth that he was unable to fully close.
The damage meant he couldn’t eat normally and drooled regularly, breathing through a hole in his windpipe, according to the National Post. The scar tissues and disconnected nerves in his face caused him constant pain.
So when Daniel Borsuk, a plastic surgeon known as “un magicien du visage” — a magician of the face — told him that he wanted to attempt a face transplant, something that had never been tried before on a patient of his age, Desjardins was receptive to the idea, despite its many risks. “I am always being judged by others. I’d rather die than keep living like this,” he said before the surgery, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “I don’t care what face I’m going to get, as long as I look like everybody else.”
Borsuk told The Washington Post that the patient’s age is less of a factor than other components for the advanced and rare procedure at the cutting-edge of medicine. More important is the patient’s physical condition and mental readiness.
“We look for someone who has mental fortitude, has resilience, and get through challenging rehab,” Borsuk said. “And someone who understands risks and benefits.”
It took five years and hundreds of medical, technical and support staff, including a year spent seeing a psychiatrist that Borsuk mandated for his patient before the complicated surgery; but in May, Desjardins was given a face transplant, in what was Canada’s first. At 65, he is also said to be the world’s oldest recipient of a face transplant.
The transplant, announced this week, is one of a couple of dozens of the novel procedure to take place around the world since the technique was pioneered in 2005 in France. Desjardins is the 41st face transplant recipient, the National Post reported.
Death occurs in about 16 percent of cases, and even when they are successful, they require anti-rejection drugs to suppress the immune system’s response, which increase the risk of diseases like cancer, infections and kidney disease, the National Post reported.
Earlier this year, Jérôme Hamon became the first person to receive a second face transplant after his first began to be rejected by his body. Borsuk, who was on a team of surgeons that completed a face transplant for Richard Norris in Virginia in 2012, counts Hamon’s surgeon, Laurent Lantieri, and Norris’ Eduardo Rodriguez as his mentors.
The procedure faced significantly even more challenges in Canada than the United States, where the Department of Defense helps fund the astronomical costs associated with the surgeries, Borsuk said.
“We don’t have that type of support,” he said.
But the medical device company Johnson and Johnson donated tens of thousands of dollars worth of plates and screws and other materials used in the procedure, Borsuk said.
The rest of the funding was “paid for by society,” Borsuk said — Canada’s public health system.
The cost to Desjardins? “Nothing,” Borsuk said. “In Canada no one pays for anything. You pay your taxes you’ve paid.”
Borsuk said that due to privacy laws in Canada, he knows very little about the donor, except that he was in his 40s or 50s.
And he has said that the details of Desjardins’ accident are not clear to him either. Now, his patient is recovering well, Borsuk said. His face is still mostly numb, according to the National Post, and doctors hope that his nerves are in the process of regrowing.
Borsuk said he has several other patients who seem like good candidates for the procedure, and would like to do more.
Desjardins never wavered as Borsuk explained the many risks involved, including the chance his body would reject the face or could even result in the loss of his life.
“He looked at me straight in the eye and said do you think I have a life right now?” Borsuk said. “He was so motivated, he assumed the risks. He really wanted this.”