A man who had a face transplant three years ago has met the sister of his donor for the first time.
Rebekah Aversano’s brother, Joshua, died in a car accident in 2012 and the family agreed to donate his face to Richard Lee Norris for what was the world’s most extensive face transplant at the time.
This is the moment that a woman sees – and touches – the face of her dead brother on another person for the first time following a groundbreaking transplant.
It’s a union that she finds overwhelmingly emotional.
The transplant took place thanks to the family of Joshua Aversano, 21, who was tragically killed in a car accident. The incredible meeting between his sister Rebekah and recipient, Richard Norris, has been filmed for 60 Minutes on Nine.
39-year-old Richard Norris (right) suffered horrific injuries in the 1997 shotgun accident. Rebekah Aversano (left) and her family made the decision in 2012 to donate her dead 21-year-old brother’s face for transplant. Their meeting is catalogued by the 60 Minutes Australia crew this Sunday night
Joshua Aversano (left) was killed when hit by a van in 2012. His family donated his face for transplant to shooting victim Richard Norris (after the transplant, right)
The family gave doctors permission to give his face to Norris, who was horribly disfigured almost 18 years ago when he accidentally blew off most of his face with a shotgun.
It was an operation which transformed his life.
The get-together was set up partly so that he could thank the Aversano family for ‘saving my life’.
As they meet for the first time at his home, Rebekah asks Richard: ‘Do you mind if I touch it?’
He responds: ‘No, not at all.’
She does and then steps back in amazement: ‘Wow, this is the face I grew up with.’
Norris underwent more than 30 operations to try and correct the damage and restore his features. The long and painful process resulted in little sign of improvement, leaving him depressed and at times suicidal.
When Rebekah and her family were first approached by doctors about the possibility of using her dead brother’s face for transplant, they were shocked
Incredible moment: Rebekah Aversano meeting Richard Norris for the first time since his transplant using the face of her late brother Joshua
Rebekah asks Richard: ‘Do you mind if I touch it?’ She does and then steps back in amazement, saying ‘wow, this is the face I grew up with’
Emotional: Richard Norris and Rebekah Aversano embrace, the reunion proving overwhelming
But three years ago, the tragedy in the Aversano family offered him a glimmer of hope.
Norris, 39, underwent one of the most complex and expensive face transplants in history, receiving teeth, a jaw and even a tongue from his donor.
His mother, Gwen Aversano, told Canada’s CTV News network they knew it was ‘the right thing to do’.
‘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.’
And the chances of finding a perfect match were very low.
Disfigured: When Richard Norris shot himself he lost his nose, lips and most movement in his mouth. The surgery took more than 36 hours
Life saving: Norris, 39, has had multiple life-saving, reconstructive surgeries but none as successful as this by Dr Rodriguez and his 150-strong team
Joshua’s family was approached soon after his death with a request to donate his face for transplanting onto Richard Norris. They had already donated his organs
Norris said he is humbled by the gift he received from her late brother after Joshua was killed, struck by a minivan while crossing the street. He speaks to the Maryland family regularly and keeps them updated on his life and health.
‘I asked him if it really was worth the risk, he said “absolutely”, even though there was a 50 per cent chance it would fail,’ she added.
Part of the health battles, included a severe rejection episode when he was sunburnt. He sent pictures of his face to the team of doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center, who told him to board a plane without delay.
He spent three weeks recovering from the episode in hospital.
The 36-hour hour operation was considered extremely controversial, as it was elective surgery, and Norris only had a 50 per cent chance of survival.
The result, however, was not only a new life for him, but a groundbreaking study for doctors learning to treat soldiers and other victims of severe facial injuries.
Norris was only 22 when his face ‘exploded’.
The story goes that he had arrived home after drinking and was arguing with his mother when he took a shotgun from his gun cabinet and told his mom he was going to shoot himself.
But when he went to place the gun down, it went off
Each day became a living nightmare for Norris as he faced cruelty from strangers whenever he ventured outdoors, fought addiction and contemplated suicide.
Dr Rodriguez led a 150-strong team in a 36 hour operation to transplant the new face on Richard Norris
An MRI image of Richard Lee Norris re-constructed face transplant after being shot in the face (left) and the image following the reconstruction and transplant (at right)
The accident left Norris with no teeth, no nose and only part of his tongue. He was still able to taste but could not smell.
‘Those 10 years of hell I lived through, it has given me such a wealth of knowledge,’ Norris told Associated Press.
‘I’ve heard all kinds of remarks. A lot of them were really horrible.
‘It’s unreal. It has put some of the best people in my life.’
The doctor who performed the operation at the Maryland Medical Centre, Dr Eduardo Rodriguez, said when Norris opted to undergo the face-transplant intense procedure, he was agreeing to take on an enormous responsibility.
He said, the face isn’t an organ like a liver or a heart, which are regularly transplanted.
The face is more like a hand or foot, and Richard Norris’ body will always regard his new face as a foreign object, causing his immune system to constantly attack it.
He will take a cocktail of anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life, lowering his immune system and leaving him vulnerable to many health problems.
He is also not allowed to drink, smoke, get sunburned or risk injury, all of which will only worsen the rejection.
A serious rejection results in death.
‘He never really thought about himself in all of this,’ Dr Rodriguez told GQ magazine.
Grateful: Richard Norris sits in the office of Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, who led the surgical team that performed the face transplant. He undergoes regular checks because of the fear of his body rejecting the new face
Dr Eduardo Rodriguez inspects Norris’ skin. In the years since a shotgun accident blew half of Norris’ face off, he faced cruelty from strangers, fought addiction and contemplated suicide
When Norris saw his new face in a mirror for the first time, he wrote: ‘The only thing I could do was hug Dr. Rodriguez’
‘He’s always thought about helping the wounded warriors and the other people, and providing hope.
‘He’s a remarkable man.’
Before, whenever he ventured out in public, usually at night, he hid behind a hat and mask.
Norris had dozens of previous surgeries to try and repair his face, but eventually reached the limits of what conventional surgery could do for him, said Dr Rodriguez.
And it was that just weeks after Norris was told by another doctor that there was little else that could be done for him, Dr Rodriguez presented him with another option: a transplant.
The doctor, who is the chair of the plastic surgery department at NYU Langone Medical Centre, had been following advancements in the face transplant field for years.
A Naval Research grant, for the purpose of helping wounded warriors made it possible for him and his team to attempt their first face transplant, an operation that previously had been performed only twice in the US.
The world’s first partial face transplant was performed in France in 2005 on a woman who was mauled by her dog.
Of 27 other transplants that followed, four recipients have died.
Norris has had two serious episodes since the 2012 operation, and spent weeks in hospital on intravenous medication.
For the first time in many years, Richard recognises himself when he looks in the mirror and this Sunday night meets the woman who made the decision to allow him the face transplant
The rejection was the major danger in the first place. However, once Dr Rodriguez and his team began, there was no turning back.
If the transplant didn’t take, there would have been nothing left of his face and he would have died.
Norris’ mother, Sandra, remembers Dr Rodriguez saying there was a 50-50 chance her son would survive the surgery.
‘We looked at Richard and we told him we loved him the way he was and it didn’t matter to us, but it was his life,’ she said. ‘That was what he wanted to do and we supported him.’
Dr Rodriguez said if all goes well, a transplanted face could last 20 to 30 years.
Norris, who makes daily visual checks, gains more feeling in his new face as each day passes but the risk of rejection is never far from his mind.
‘Every day I wake up with that fear: Is this the day? The day I’m going to go into a state of rejection that is going to be so bad that the doctors can’t change it?’
Before the transplant, Norris rarely left his home. In addition to wearing a surgical mask and baseball cap on his infrequent trips out in public, he did his shopping at night so he wouldn’t have to face the stares of as many people.
‘I am now able to walk past people and no one even gives me a second look.’