Connie Culp, the first recipient of a face transplant in the U.S., has died, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
She passed away on Thursday evening, reported NBC affiliate WKYC. As of Saturday, the cause of death was not known.
"We are saddened by the loss of Connie Culp, the first face transplant recipient in the U.S.," read the tweet posted on Friday. "She was an inspiration to all of us at Cleveland Clinic."
"Connie was an incredibly brave, vibrant woman and an inspiration to many," Dr. Frank Papay, chair of the Cleveland Clinic's Dermatology and Plastic Surgery Institute, said in a statement emailed to TODAY. "Her strength was evident in the fact that she had been the longest-living face transplant patient to date. She was a great pioneer and her decision to undergo a sometimes-daunting procedure is an enduring gift for all humanity."
Papay was part of Culp's surgical team and led her care since she first visited the clinic over 12 years ago. Doctors saluted Culp for her bravery, and while the groundbreaking surgery could never restore her former looks, what she endured and contributed to medical science will be remembered.
In 2004, Thomas Culp shot Connie, his wife and the mother of their two children, in a murder-suicide attempt before turning the gun on himself. The blast shattered her nose, cheeks, the roof of her mouth and eye. Thomas Culp's injuries were much less severe, and both of them survived the ordeal. He was later sent to jail for seven years.
Connie Culp had already undergone 30 corrective surgeries before she received a face transplant at the Cleveland Clinic in Northeast Ohio. The transplant surgery, which took place in December 2008, was the first of its kind in the U.S. and took place over the course of two days. The procedure required 22 hours of operating time.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, in the rare instance someone loses so much of their face, it can have not only a profound effect on their looks and sense of self, but also on their ability to do things most take for granted, such as talk, eat, smile or breathe.
In the years following her surgery, Culp forgave her husband and went on to speak out about domestic violence. She also encouraged others who underwent the same surgery including Charla Nash, who survived a chimpanzee attack. Since her surgery, about 40 other face transplants have been done around the world, with three taking place at the Cleveland Clinic. Because of Connie, doctors have been able to work on ways to reduce transplant rejections.
"We are connecting the donor and recipient bone marrow cells to support face transplantation and other organ transplants in order to induce tolerance and reduce the need for lifelong immunosuppression," said surgeon Dr. Maria Siemionow, who led Culpo's face transplant surgery.
"Thinking about Connie is thinking about someone who's not giving up, and I'll not give up," she said.