Five years ago, a shotgun blast left a ghastly hole where the middle of her face had been. Five months ago, she received a new face from a dead woman.
Connie Culp stepped forward Tuesday to show off the results of the nation’s first face transplant, and her new look was a far cry from the puckered, noseless sight that made children run away in horror.
Culp’s expressions are still a bit wooden, but she can talk, smile, smell and taste her food again. Her speech is at times a little tough to understand. Her face is bloated and squarish, and her skin droops in big folds that doctors plan to pare away as her circulation improves and her nerves grow, animating her new muscles.
But Culp, 46, of Unionport, Ohio, had nothing but praise for those who made her new face possible.
“I guess I’m the one you came to see today,” she said at a news conference at the Cleveland Clinic, where the operation was performed. But “I think it’s more important that you focus on the donor family that made it so I could have this person’s face.”
Until Tuesday, Culp’s identity and how she came to be disfigured were a secret.
Culp’s husband, Thomas, shot her in 2004, then turned the gun on himself. He survived, and was sent to prison for seven years. His wife was left clinging to life. The blast shattered her nose, cheeks, the roof of her mouth and an eye. She needed a tube into her windpipe to breathe.
On Dec. 10, in a 22-hour operation, Dr. Maria Siemionow led a team that replaced 80% of Culp’s face with bone, muscles, nerves, skin and blood vessels from a woman who had just died. It was the fourth face transplant in the world.
Culp said she wanted to help foster acceptance of those with disfiguring injuries:
“Don’t judge people who don’t look the same as you do.”