The man pictured above with his daughter, Ebony, is Robert Chelsea.
Five years ago, Chelsea was involved in a catastrophic car accident that left his face severely disfigured.
He was put on the transplant list for a new face, but he turned down the one offered to him in 2018. It was significantly lighter than his own skin, and he didn’t want to look like a completely different person post-surgery.
Now, TIME reports that Chelsea has become the first African American man to receive a face transplant, having found the right donor.
Fewer than 50 face transplants have been performed worldwide. 21-year-old Katie Stubblefield became the youngest person in the United States to receive a face transplant in August last year, and Cameron Underwood received a new face a few months later.
A new patient joining the ranks is always noteworthy, but Chelsea’s case carries even more weight than usual. Because he is the first African American to receive a full face transplant, Chelsea’s treatment is expected to have ripple effects that transcend his case. Disparities in the medical system that cause black Americans to die at higher rates than whites of so many things—like heart disease, cancer diabetes and HIV/AIDS—have also produced gaps in organ donation and transplantation.
Widespread mistrust of the medical system has also made many African Americans wary of tissue donation, which in turn leads to a shortage of organs.
Statistically, only 17% of black patients awaiting an organ transplant received one in 2015, compared with about 30% of white patients.
Chelsea’s accidental role as the literal and figurative face of black organ transplantation is likely to help chip away at those disparities. “Having a visible, tangible reference, especially for African Americans … is so needed,” says Marion Shuck, president of the Association for Multicultural Affairs in Transplantation (AMAT).
Sharing personal experiences publicly, Shuck says, could inspire potential donors with a clear example of a transplant’s positive impact. Though facial donation is rare, Chelsea’s story could encourage black Americans, and their families, to donate kidneys, livers or lungs, saving lives and reducing wait times across the country.
Chelsea received a second call nearly a year after the first, saying that they’d found a face, and this one was a near-perfect colour match.
He underwent surgery at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he has become not only the first African American recipient of a face transplant, but also, at 68, the oldest.
“Morning by morning, new versions [of me] unfold,” Chelsea said on the day he was discharged from the hospital in August, nearly a month after surgery. “[But] I feel like myself.”
May he have a speedy recovery, and a long, happy life.
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