Man gets a new chance at life with face and hand transplant surgery

Joe DiMeo poses for a portrait, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021 at NYU Langone Health in New York, six months after an extremely rare double hand and face transplant. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Almost six months after a rare face and hands transplant, 22-year-old Joe DiMeo is relearning how to smile, blink, pinch and squeeze.

The New Jersey resident had the operation last August, two years after being badly burned in a car crash.

“I knew it would be baby steps all the way,” DiMeo told The Associated Press. “You’ve got to have a lot of motivation, a lot of patience. And you’ve got to stay strong through everything.”

Experts say it appears the surgery at NYU Langone Health was a success, but warn it’ll take some time to say for sure.

Worldwide, surgeons have completed at least 18 face transplants and 35 hand transplants, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, which oversees the U.S. transplant system.

DiMeo will be on lifelong medications to avoid rejecting the transplants, as well as continued rehabilitation to gain sensation and function in his new face and hands.

In 2018, DiMeo fell asleep at the wheel, he said, after working a night shift as a product tester for a drug company. The car hit a curb and utility pole, flipped over, and burst into flames. Another driver who saw the accident pulled over to rescue DiMeo.

DiMeo, who lives with his parents, can now dress and feed himself. He shoots pool and plays with his dog Buster. Once an avid gym-goer, DiMeo is also working out again — benching 50 pounds and practicing his golf swing.

“You got a new chance at life. You really can’t give up,” he said.