Skip to Content

'So Happy:' World's First Hand/Face Transplant Patient Doing Well

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 3, 2021 -- Joe DiMeo's life changed forever when he fell asleep at the wheel on U.S. Route 22 in New Jersey on July 14, 2018.

The horrific crash left him with third-degree burns on 80% of his body and a grim prognosis.

Now, more than two years later, DiMeo, 22, is the recipient of the world's first successful double hand and face transplant, and on the road to recovery.

The historic surgery, which took place on Aug. 12, 2020, at NYU Langone in New York City, involved more than 140 health care professionals.

Over 23 hours, they successfully transplanted two hands, three dominant nerves to the hand, six blood vessels, 21 tendons and a full face, including forehead, eyebrows, both ears, nose, eyelids, lips, and underlying skull, cheek, nasal and chin bone segments.

Face and hand transplants have been performed independently, but this double procedure had been attempted twice before and was unsuccessful both times.

For this procedure, surgeons used computer-generated three-dimensional guides. They ensured that bones were properly aligned and implants were in position to anchor the grafted face and hands to DiMeo.

Technology aside, a big part of DiMeo's success owes to his can-do attitude, according to the head of his surgical team, Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, director of NYU Langone's Face Transplant Program.

"He is the most highly motivated patient I have ever met," Rodriguez marveled during a media briefing.

And while it hasn't been an easy road, DiMeo told reporters he's "grateful" and doing well.

"I have been able to get back to many activities I love, such as playing with my dog and playing pool," he said. "I can't wait to get back to work."

Reaching this milestone was no easy feat.

DiMeo spends five hours a day in various types of therapy. He is re-learning everything from how to feed and dress himself to how to lift weights and swing a golf club. This video shows his amazing progress:


Of course, things looked bleak after the crash.

DiMeo was pulled out of his car shortly before it exploded, and spent about three months in a medically induced coma.

He underwent 20 reconstructive surgeries, including skin grafts and blood transfusions, before he was referred to NYU Langone for a possible double hand and face transplant.

"He had no ears, no nose, no lips, no eyebrows and severe scarring of neck," Rodriguez recalled. "His hands looked like mittens. They were completely scarred and he had limited range of motion in his wrist and hands."

The injuries also affected DiMeo's sight.

"He was completely dependent on care from his parents to dress him, to bathe him and to feed him," Rodriguez said.

Starting with the search for a suitable donor — a quest Rodriguez likened to "finding a needle in a haystack" — the odds seemed arrayed against him.

Because DiMeo had had many blood transfusions and skin grafts after the crash, doctors were mindful that his immune system was more likely to reject any donor organs and tissues.

"There was only a 6% chance of identifying an ideal donor for him, and we had to go beyond New York state lines," Rodriguez said.

After just 10 months, doctors found a donor for DiMeo through Gift of Life, a regional organ donor program serving southern New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Total time from accident to transplant: Just over two years.

In the middle of it all, the coronavirus pandemic intervened.

Just three months after DiMeo was first listed for organ donation, Rodriguez and other doctors had to switch gears to care for COVID-19 patients.

Even so, the transplant team practiced the surgery nearly a dozen times over the course of a year to make sure they got it right when the time came.

So far, DiMeo's body has shown no signs of rejecting his new face and hands. Rodriguez said that's likely due to a new immunosuppression regimen.

Since the transplant, Rodriguez has performed several less extensive follow-up surgeries to improve DiMeo's functional and aesthetic outcomes, and DiMeo is thrilled.

"I am so happy with the results of my transplant," he said.

© 2021 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

Read this next

Scientists Create Embryos With Cells From Monkeys, Humans

THURSDAY, April 15, 2021 -- Researchers have successfully introduced human stem cells into monkey embryos in the lab, creating short-lived hybrid organisms that could prove an...

'Heart-in-a-Box' Can Be Lifesaving, Matching Up Distant Donors With Patients

THURSDAY, April 8, 2021 -- A few days after his 74th birthday, Don Stivers received his dream gift -- a new heart. "I was born with a very lousy heart," he explained. "Growing...

AHA News: Stroke, Blindness, a Heart Transplant – And a Can-Do Spirit

TUESDAY, March 23, 2021 (American Heart Association News) -- Hana Hooper went to college with dreams of becoming a veterinarian. She aspired to boost her knowledge of biology and...

More News Resources

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Whatever your topic of interest, subscribe to our newsletters to get the best of in your inbox.