Unfortunately, after a car accident in 2018, Joe DiMeo had burns on 80 percent of his body. So, the only way he could regain independence was to get hand and face transplants done.
The 22-year-old is a person who’s always looking for the positive, even when faced with challenges, like the July accident that caused major burns.
The New Jersey native was driving home from late night shift when he fell asleep and crashed the car that flipped over and caught on fire.
A good Samaritan, the R&B singer Ted Mills, pulled him halfway out of the car. DiMeo woke up in the hospital 3 months after and with 20 reconstructive surgeries done.
Although he survived the crash, the losses were immense. The doctors had to amputate the fingers because of extreme burns and he also had no lips. His eyelids were fused.
DiMeo says the doctors did all they could to help him. When he went back home, he recalls lying on the couch unable to do anything. He would watch TV and play with his dogs, trying to stay active as much as possible.
A Spark of Hope for DiMeo
Before he left the hospital, one of the plastic surgeons told him he sent a video of him to Dr Eduardo Rodriguez, a renowned expert in reconstructive plastic surgery at the NYU Langone Hospital in New York City.
In 2019, March, DiMeo spoke with Rodriguez and he suggested the chance for a transplant of the hands and face.
DiMeo said that he liked Rodriguez right away and considered him a down-to-earth guy. When they finished their talk, he went home and thought to himself ‘I’ve got to do this’.
Still, it wasn’t a procedure without risks. Despite around 50 face transplants in the world, 2 of which Rodriguez did, and around 100 transplants of hands, the two have never been done successfully at once.
Transplantations can go bad, including vascular failure and infections after the reconnection of the blood vessels. There’s also the risk of the body of the patient rejecting the transplant.
Rodriguez had to inform DiMeo about the fact that doing both the hands and the face has been tried twice and both times the efforts failed and one of the patients died.
DiMeo was well aware of the risks, but he had a lot of faith in Rodriguez and his team. Thinking of gaining back his independence, DiMeo was waiting for a donor.
Since he received a lot of blood transfusions during his period in the hospital after the accident, the chances of finding a suitable donor was only 6 percent.
For a whole year, DiMeo was waiting patiently as the search for a suitable donor was ongoing. Rodriguez was training his team for the surgery.
Unfortunately, the process became even more complicated when the pandemic hit; DiMeo is a high-risk group and Rodriguez and his team were working on the frontline when their city became the epicentre of COVID-19 in the beginning of 2020.
Still, on August 10, Rodriguez informed DiMeo he had found a proper donor. It was exciting news for both sides; finally, they could give DiMeo a chance to get back his normal life.
The Big Moment Came
DiMeo was in the hospital two days later and was ready for the surgery-he had no fears.
During the transplant, the team connected 2 bones, 21 tendons, 5 veins, 2 arteries, and 3 nerves to transplant the hands and face from the donor to DiMeo.
Believe it or not, this process lasted for 23 hours; a historically fast time, according to Rodriguez. His previous facial transplants alone were around 24 to 25 hours.
Everything was going well, except one small problem they quickly fixed.
A New Life for DiMeo
When they did the surgery and looked at DiMeo with his face and two arms, they were very proud and happy they did it all together.
DiMeo’s rehabilitation was going smooth and he regained the strength in his hands. He did a lot of exercises to get used to the new muscles.
Several months after the transplant and long hours of physical therapy, he’s proud to feel more grip and sensations. He’s grateful to feel his dog’s fur and to feel the warmth when the dog licks his palm.