Eleven months after he underwent a face transplant surgery in New York, Cameron Underwood smiled again.
The 26-year-old man from Yuba, California lost most of his lower jaw, his nose and all but one tooth after he suffered a gunshot wound in June 2016.
After several failures in conventional facial reconstruction, Underwood and his family contacted the famous plastic surgeon Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, a professor of reconstructive plastic surgery and chair of the plastic surgery department at NYU Langone Health.
Soon after, Dr. Rodriguez met Underwood and decided he was a good candidate for face transplant.
"When we first met Cameron, we were sure we could improve his appearance and, more importantly, the function and quality of his life," Dr. Rodriguez in a press release on Thursday.
Underwood only had to wait six months after being placed on the organ donor list in July 2017 before the perfect match was found for him. William Fisher, a 23-year-old writer and aspiring filmmaker from New York, was registered as an organ donor before his death and was chosen as a compatible donor for Underwood.
After receiving permission from the Fisher family and getting appropriate approval, Dr. Rodriguez prepared to lead the surgical team from NYU Langone Health in the third face transplant in his career, the second widely regarded as the most extensive face transplant recorded, according to the health center.
The plastic surgeon said he was optimistic about Underwood's chances of success because of a relatively short period of time – only 18 months – from when he was injured to surgery.
"Cameron hasn't lived with injuries for a decade or more like most other face transplant recipients," he said. "As a result, he doesn't have to deal with many long-term psychosocial problems that often cause problems such as severe depression, substance abuse, and other dangerous behaviors."
In January, a team of more than 100 medical professionals from NYU Langone Health transplanted and reconstructed Underwood's lower and lower jaws, his mouth, and all 32 teeth and gums. The nose, lower eyelid, and cheeks are also replaced during a 25-hour operation.
The surgical team uses state-of-the-art technology, including 3D imaging and intraoperative CAT scanning to ensure that facial bones are perfectly aligned and plates and screws to graft donor faces to Underwood are in the right position.
After a successful operation, Underwood spent several weeks in hospital before he was out of schedule in February. He returned home to California and had traveled to New York for monthly appointment appointments since.
On Thursday, Underwood stood on stage in front of an audience – which included beaming families – to show off the results of its operations almost a year ago. He took the opportunity to thank Dr. Rodriguez and his medical team and donor family.
"I want Sally [Fisher’s mother] and his family to know how big my family is and I appreciate their gifts and I will always respect the inheritance, "he said at a press conference in New York.
Although he was saddened by his son's death, Sally said he was grateful that his decision to become a donor could provide Underwood with a second chance.
"Being part of this experience has been a source of strength for me during a very difficult time. I think I will not survive Will's death if not for Cameron, "he said in a statement. "Cameron has his whole life in front of him – and I like the idea that Willie helped him have a better life."
Despite the impressive results of Underwood, Dr. Rodriguez said that his patients still had a lot of work to do in the healing process, such as improving the ability to chew, swallow, and speak. He also must continue to use anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life so that his body does not reject his new face.
Although the road to recovery is not over, Underwood says he remains positive and looks forward to the future. He also took a moment to praise Dr. Rodriguez for his efforts.
"He did a good job, I could use my old ID," he joked to the local news station WCBS after the press conference.