After a fiery car wreck left Joe DiMeo with third-degree burns covering 80% of his body, the New Jersey man was unable to do even the most basic activities, like tossing a ball to his dog.
The severity of the burns meant that his finger tips had to be amputated, and he had no lips or eyelids.
Just two years later, a revolutionary procedure is giving DiMeo his life back: The 22-year-old was the recipient of the first successful face and double hand transplant. The surgery, which has been attempted twice before and been unsuccessful in the past, takes about 23 hours and involves transplanting large pieces of skin, which are prone to rejection.
Dr. Frank Papay, a plastic surgeon who specializes in adult and pediatric facial trauma, has led three successful face transplants at the Cleveland Clinic. While he was not involved in DiMeo's surgery, his experience with the procedure makes him familiar with the risks and difficulties, which he says are much more complicated than a heart or other organ transplant.
"(An organ transplant is) a single organ," Papay explained. "What we're talking about is a transplant where it's skin, muscle, bone, nerves, and a litany of other different types of tissue."
The amount of different factors means it's difficult to find a match, and the tissue could be rejected. This happened to Charla Nash, a Connecticut woman whose face and hands were mauled by a chimpanzee in 2009. While the face transplant was successful, an infection caused irreparable damage to her transplanted hands, so they had to be surgically removed.
It's also difficult to find a matching donor: Since DiMeo's immune system was so sensitive, he had just a 6% chance of finding a match. In August 2020, Joe finally found a match, and the surgery was set.
"Our goal (was) to give Joe back a normal life," said Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, a plastic surgeon at NYU Langone Health who specializes in facial transplants and performed the "world's most extensive facial transplant to date" in 2015.
The 23-hour surgery involved transplanting hands, forearms and a new face. It was a success, and today, DiMeo is thriving: His recovery is going well, and he is able to use his hands to do everyday tasks and activities like working out.
"This progress, so far, has gone ahead of schedule," DiMeo said. "My motivation to get things done is really high up there."
Papay said that face and hand transplants can be just as vital as organ transplant surgeries.
"Even though it's not a lifesaving organ like a kidney or liver or heart, it really is a life," he said. "You can imagine, in a face transplant, if you can't smell, if you can't speak, if you can't breathe appropriately. Plus, (it's) how you face the world."