At the age of 22, Joe Dimeo is rediscovering a series of sensations in his hands and face: he can already feel hot, cold, or someone else’s touch. But the young man is still accustomed to all this. Both face and hands are “new”, less than six months old. As a result of a revolutionary operation performed after an accident they left Joe almost without fingers and with a severely deformed face.
“It’s so amazing when something new touches me or when I touch something new, I can feel it for the first time,” the young man said in an interview.
The desire to return to her parents ’home in New Jersey in the United States motivates her to face a long period of daily rehab, but the ultimate goal is different. “Driving is what I really like this time around,” he said.
Driving is just the beginning of the dream. He fell asleep at the wheel on his way home from a night shift at a drugstore. He lost control of the car, which overturned and exploded, leaving third degree burns with 80% burns on Joe’s body.
Four months in the burning ward at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey – some of them in an induced coma. He had to undergo more than 20 reconstructive surgeries that left his hands and face with limited use.
He came to the plastic surgery department at NYU Langone Medical Center, where three successful face transplants had already been performed a few months after the accident. In August 2020, he underwent 23 hours of surgery by 140 hours of surgeons, nurses and assistants, which gave him a new face and a new pair of hands.
“We wanted to do an operation that would make him look beautiful, but it would work just fine, especially with his hands,” said Eduardo Rodriguez, the surgeon who coordinated the operation.
Joe’s recovery is still months away: he will have to continue to do rehab for up to five hours a day, and will need medication for the rest of his life to prevent his body from rejecting the transplant. But according to Rodriguez, the patient is doing very well and is one of the “most motivated” people he has ever met.
Joe says he can now do trivial things like prepare breakfast or exercise. “I can already see myself. This is me,” he said.
According to the United Organ Sharing Network, which oversees the United States alternative system, 18 facial transplants and 35 hand transplants have been performed in the United States. However, simultaneous face and hand transplants are very rare and have only occurred twice in the world before Joe Timio.
The first attempt at this operation took place in Paris, France in 2009, but the patient died a month later from complications related to the intervention. Two years later, a Boston medical team tried to reactivate a woman who had been attacked by a chimpanzee, but the arm transplant was removed a few days later.