Surgeon, patient show off first-ever eye and partial face transplant

ByEyewitness News WABC logo
Thursday, November 9, 2023
NYU Langone performs world's first eye and face transplant
Kemberly Richardon has the story.

NEW YORK CITY -- NYU Langone Health successfully completed a first-of-its-kind surgery that could change the medical world forever.

A patient received the first-ever eye and partial face transplant, and on Thursday, that patient and the surgeon made their first public appearance together since that surgery.

"It's been therapy after therapy and it's been going forward one day at a time. You get through one day, and thank God for the next," said Aaron James, a 46-year-old father and military veteran from Hot Springs, Arkansas.

"The attempt to proceed with the eye transplant, that's not a decision you make lightly. It's never been done, it could have ended his life, connecting the optic nerve in proximity to the brain, developing severe brain infections and he could have died. But he always thought about how he could help out mankind, and that's remarkable," said transplant surgeon Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez.

Dr. Rodriguez is the lead face transplant surgeon and Chair of the Hansjrg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone Health.

On June 10, 2021, James survived a 7200-volt electric shock while working as a high-voltage lineman. James accidentally touched a live wire while holding a ground wire in his left hand, giving the electricity a path to travel, entering just above his lip, and exiting his right upper back and left arm.

This fall 2010 family photo shows Aaron James and his wife, Meagan, before his June 2021 high-voltage electricity accident.

NYU Langone Health via AP

As a result, he lost his left eye, his dominant left arm from above the elbow, his entire nose and lips, front teeth, left cheek area and chin down to the bone. He was in a medically induced coma for six weeks.

"The conversations that I had with these doctors and nurses were pretty much preparing me to lose him," said his wife Meagan James.

The surgery by Dr. Rodriguez and his team of 140 surgeons, nurses, and others took 21 hours inside two operating rooms on May 23.

The surgery included replacing a portion of his face including the nose, left upper and lower eyelids, left eyebrow, upper and lower lips, and underlying skull, cheek, nasal and chin bone segments, with all of the tissues below the right eye including the underlying muscles, blood vessels and nerves.

He also got an entirely new left whole-eye and socket including the orbital bones and all surrounding eye tissues including the optic nerve.

Six months after the surgery, James can now taste, smell, and eat solid foods.

"It's been nothing but a test, a test of strength, will power, family, friends and I think we beat it," James said.

It's still, however, not known if the transplanted eye will lead him to regain his sight. Doctors say it is showing remarkable signs of health, including direct blood flow to the retina.

James was in the Army National Guard for 10 years and served three tours in Iraq, Kuwait, and Egypt.

He says he has the utmost respect for the donor and that person's family.