In a 21-hour procedure, 140 surgeons and attendants completed the first whole eyeball transplant on a military veteran who had suffered a near-fatal electrocution.
Replacing the better part of his entire face, and connecting a donor eyeball to the optic nerves, the surgery was declared a success, and though it isn’t clear whether the patient will be able to see out of his eye again, it has meant an enormous step forward for transplantation science and incredible peace of mind for his family.
Aaron James was working on a powerline in Mississippi when he accidentally touched a live wire and received a 7,200-volt shock in June 2021. His wife was called at their home in Arkansas and was told only that her husband wouldn’t be dead by the time she reached the hospital where he was admitted.
James remembers only getting up to go to work, and then waking up days later in a Dallas hospital burn ward where he was flown. He felt okay, he told CNN, so he knew he was going to be okay, but he was missing his face, and taking a selfie allowed him to see inside his own skull.
Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, director of the Face Transplant Program at NYU Langone Health was briefed about James’ case, and after hearing that he was going to require his left eye amputated, told the surgeons to leave as much of the optic nerve intact for a possible transplant.
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He remembers talking to Rodriquez and hearing that he may never see out of the donor eyeball.
“But I said ‘even if it don’t work, I’ll have an eye, and it will be at least normal-looking, and then you all could learn something off of this,’” Aaron told CNN. “You have to have a patient zero,” he said sportingly.
After donor tissue was acquired, James was treated at NYU Langone Health in two separate theaters. For the eye transplant, stem cells were injected into the optic nerve and the area around it in hopes of gradually restoring communication between the brain and the eye.
Over time, the donor tissue gradually took and mended, and a much more human visage appeared in the mirror. Beard stubble began to grow through the skin, and Meagan, Aaron’s wife of 20 years, said it was a bag of emotions.
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“It was a crazy, great, weird, strange, ecstatic, happy feeling,” Meagan said. “I was just happy he made it through, and everything was good in the moment.”
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