Sunday, June 12, 2005

A Hollywood Fiction Becoming a Reality

In the 1997 movie, Face/Off, John Travolta's character, Sean Archer, has his face removed and replaced with the face of Nicholas Cage's character, Castor Troy, in order to infiltrate Troy's criminal organization. At the time of the movie, the procedure sounded and looked like pure science fiction, but now such a procedure could become a reality. Two medical centers in the U.S. are in the final phases of planning for the first human face transplant for an individual who's face has been severely disfigured by trauma, tumors or burns.

How does the procedure work? Incisions are made on the donor's face from just below the hairline to below the chin. The skin and underlying tissue is removed. Then surgeons remove the face of the recipient, clamping off veins and arteries to block the blood flow. After that, microsurgeons attach the recipient's severed arteries and veins to the donor's facial tissue (the facial donor like most organ donors is a human cadaver). The nerves are connected, then the muscles and skin. The procedure would take anywhere from 12 to 24 hours (Note: The Chicago Tribune has a very informative Flash presentation on how this surgerical procedure works and is my source for how the procedure works). The person receiving the new face would then be required to take immunosuppressive drugs, similar to an organ transplant recipient. The person could required to take the medication for the rest of their life. Unlike Face/Off, the person would not have the exact same face as the donor, but rather a blend of their former face and the donor's face.

Unsurprisingly, the thought of performing such an operation has generated quite of bit of controversy in the medical community with one side saying that this procedure might be the only way for severely disfigured people to live normal lives and the other side saying the procedure won't save or prolong life and is too risky. Personally, if this procedure can be performed safely, does not have dire long-term side effects and is only used in the rare instances where a person's face is severely disfigured, then this procedure should be allowed to be performed. Sadly, we live in a world where looks matter and to give these individuals who in many cases have been shunned by society a chance to live a normal life is something that the medical community should pursue.