Joe DiMeo, 22, in July of 2018 was in a car accident that left him with burns on 80% of his body.
DiMeo had been driving home after a late shift at work in New Jersey when he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car, which then flipped and caught fire. He was thankfully was pulled halfway out of his car by R&B singer, Ted Wizard Mills, and woke up in a hospital three months later after 20 reconstructive surgeries.
Thankfully, DiMeo had survived but doctors had to amputate his fingers due to the severe burns, and had no lips or eyelids. “They did what they could at the best of their ability for me,” DiMeo revealed.
Once he was back at home, he shared: “I used to just lay on the couch because I wasn’t able to do anything at all,” he says. “I would just sit on the couch and watch TV and play with my dogs, and try to be as active as I could.”
Before he left the hospital, one of the plastic surgeons who worked on him had taken a video and sent it to Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, a world-renowned expert in reconstructive plastic surgery at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
And in March of 2019, DiMeo spoke to Rodriguez, who posed a possibility of a face and hands transplant.
“I liked his attitude — he’s a really down-to-earth guy,” DiMeo says of Rodriguez. “When I finished talking to him that day, I was like, ‘I’ve got to do this.’ “
That being said, there were serious risks, as there have been around 50 face transplants in the world (with four done by Rodriguez) and about 100 hand transplants — but they had never successfully been done at the same time. Transplant surgery can easily go south with infections or vascular failure after reconnecting the blood vessels, or the patient’s body could reject the transplant after the surgery.
“When we talked about the possibility of doing both the hands and the face, I had to let him know that this has been attempted twice in the world and both have failed, and actually one of those patients died,” Rodriguez shared. “He understood the risks that were involved, and he knew that this was a cutting-edge surgery that hadn’t been successful in the past, but he had the greatest faith in all of us.”
With the significant issues and the possibility that DiMeo could achieve independence again — the next step in the process was finding a donor. And due to the many blood transfusions DiMeo had received during his post-accident hospital stay, there was only a 6% chance of identifying a donor that would work.
DiMeo waited over a year as Rodriguez searched for a viable donor and worked with his team to train for the surgery. And as COVID-19 hit, the process became trickier as DiMeo is extremely at risk of severe illness if he were to contract the novel virus. But on August 10, Rodriguez found a possible donor.
“It was exhilarating. I had to ensure that this patient is the ideal donor for Joe, but with every step I go through, you start feeling better. And when I identified that this is the perfect donor for Joe, it was really exciting because now our entire team, that trained for close to a year, is ready to provide Joe with a chance to get his life back to normal,” he says.
And only two days later — DiMeo was at the hospital and ready to go under the knife. “I was clear-headed that morning. It was like, 5:30 a.m., and Dr. Rodriguez came up to ask if was worried or wanted to back out, and I actually said, ‘Let’s do it now.’ And he said, ‘Well, we have to wait for the other doctors.’ “
But they were quick to get started, connecting two bones, 21 tendons, five veins, two major arteries and three major nerves to transplant the donor’s hands and face on to DiMeo. The surgery took 23 hours and at a “historically” fast time says Rodriguez, whose past face transplants alone were 24 to 25 hours. It was “smooth sailing,” he states. After the history-making surgery, the first-ever successful face and hands transplant in the world, Rodriguez felt “elation.”
“When we completed this operation and I looked at Joe with a new face and two arms and they look perfect, I was so proud of this team that came together, and even more so through this great health crisis that none of us have ever experienced, and we pulled it off.” DiMeo woke up a few days later, and quickly began rehab to help him regain the strength in his hands.
“I do a lot of fine motor stuff with pinching and squeezing and trying to get the smaller muscles to work. It’s a little bit trickier because I know I can do that stuff, but I just have to find the right muscle to do it.”
But DiMeo, who is five months post-transplant with hours of physical therapy under his belt, is “way ahead” of schedule. “Right now I have 20 lbs. of grip, and most people don’t have that in five months, that usually takes a year. And I’m getting a lot of sensation and grip back.”
Rodriguez is watching DiMeo carefully for any issues or rejections, but notes how “every week” he gets better. DiMeo can now feed himself, shower, wash his hands, play pool — all precious activities he was unable to do prior to his transplant surgery.
“I feel really grateful,” DiMeo says. “I can feel the fur of my dog, or when he licks his palm, and it makes me happy. It’s the small things you do every day, and you don’t know it’s gone until you lost it.”
“This is an individual with tremendous amount of courage, who went into an operation not knowing if he’s going to come out of alive,” Rodriguez says. “He just has that mentality and hope and a mental strength that he will succeed. And that is a major element that has helped him heal and help him get back to normal.”
“I just kind of roll with the punches and keep looking forward,” DiMeo says. “You can always look on the downside of things, but there’s always more good things than bad things.”
With a background in the creative and educational fields, Amelia Finefrock is freelance writer, singer-songwriter and nanny based in Chicago.
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