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Face Transplants Raise Hopes -- And Some Fears

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2004; Page A01

Some might consider it ghoulish to walk around wearing a dead person's face.

But when Gwendolyn Arrington read last week that doctors in Cleveland had gained approval to conduct the world's first face transplant, she was quick to ask if she might be eligible.

Gwendolyn Arrington, shown with daughter Al-Lexis in 1999, was severely burned in 1989 and would like a new face. (Dale Omor -- Cleveland Plain-dealer)

As a 22-year-old in 1989, Arrington was severely burned in a gas explosion. More than 30 operations later, her scarred face still sometimes scares children, she said. And, strange as the concept may seem to others, wearing someone else's face would not faze her.

"With all the grafts I've received, patches here and patches there," she said, "I honestly feel like I'm already living with someone else's face."

Arrington's injuries probably are not severe enough to qualify her for the radical procedure, the first of which could come within the next few months. Many people have far more devastating facial injuries -- their eyelids, lips, noses and ears horribly deformed or missing and their lives shrouded in solitude, pain and depression.

That reality means the search for recipients for the first face transplants may be relatively easy.

More difficult, experts say, will be finding people willing to donate their faces after death -- an act with profound, and for many people, disturbing symbolic significance.

Then there will be the toughest test of all: making it work.

More is involved than the intricacies of connecting tiny blood vessels and nerves. For the rest of their lives these patients will have to take immune-suppressing drugs to keep their new faces from being rejected -- potent drugs that cause life-threatening problems of their own.

Those issues help explain why some experts say they are troubled by what appears to be a race among surgeons to be the first to transplant a face.

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