On May 4, 2017, 21-year-old Katie Stubblefield underwent a 31-hour procedure to replace her face with that of a donor. The reconstruction surgery came three years after Stubblefield shot herself in the face with a rifle in an attempt to take her own life. By the end of procedure, Stubblefield became the youngest person in the U.S. to receive a face transplant. Her story, “The Story of a Face,” is the cover of National Geographic’s September issue, giving the world an intimate look inside a groundbreaking procedure—and the pain and strength that comes with it.
In the three years since the incident, Stubblefield has endured 22 different surgeries to reconstruct her face, along with numerous bone-breaking and stretching procedures, all in an effort to prepare her for her transplant.
Though Stubblefield has attempted to live a normal life (“I got hurt, but I’m getting better,” she wants to tell the people who stare at her on the street), she’s been subjected to intense physical therapy to help her regain muscle control that she lost from trauma caused by the bullet, making "normal" a goal, not yet a reality.[image id='d96186dc-c86b-45ed-bff2-1b9f7ad5ebc6' mediaId='70fdab34-1d92-454d-9ded-5f30f1203020' align='center' size='medium' share='true' caption='' expand='' crop='original'][/image]
After waiting for more than a year on the transplant list, Stubblefield finally received her new face from Andrea Schneider, a donor who died of a drug overdose. “I get a second chance at life now,” Stubblefield said before her surgery began. “This is like the beginning of another chapter.”[image id='04a71803-6178-4249-80a3-bce67d6976bd' mediaId='d6791ab4-44ec-4e47-9288-9eabf57ec99c' align='center' size='medium' share='true' caption='Adrea Schneider in 2017' expand='' crop='original'][/image]
The intensive procedure required a team of surgeons working for 31 hours to transplant Schneider’s face, along with pieces of her bone, onto Stubblefield's skull. The surgery was, thankfully, successful, though the work wasn't complete.
Stubblefield has since undergone three major follow-up surgeries, extensive rehab treatment, and a daily regimen of “powerful” anti-rejection drugs that she must take for the rest of her life. Her parents are also currently looking into eye transplants to restore her eyesight, which would require another major surgery down the line.[image id='b566af88-2fc4-4141-9d77-d8261dd7d87d' mediaId='b6d54c73-7015-4ac0-8272-15b589320f6e' align='center' size='medium' share='true' caption='A surgical resident carefully cradles Katie’s head to keep it still as she’s situated in the intensive care unit after the 31- hour procedure concluded. To protect her eyes, her eyelids were sutured shut. With the transplant complete, Katie would still require additional operations and many months of rehabilitation.' expand='' crop='original'][/image]
But for now, Stubblefield is focusing on recovery, and says she has plans to go to college for a career in counseling. “So many people have helped me,” she said; “now I want to help other people.”
To see more of Stubblefield's life-changing transplant, check out the video, below:[iframe allowfullscreen width='640' height='360' src='//assets.nationalgeographic.com/modules-video/latest/assets/ngsEmbeddedVideo.html?guid=00000164-f249-d1e2-a3e6-f66ba4360000' frameborder='0' scrolling='no'][/iframe]
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741.