Every so often I read an article that I find horrifying on a lot of levels, but I can’t put the piece down.
In 2014, beautiful 18 year old Katie Stubblefield, in despair over a number of untoward life events, put her brother’s .308 caliber hunting rifle under her chin and blew her face off. Miraculously, she survived. Perhaps more miraculously, she got a full face transplant from a donor who’d died of a cocaine overdose. Katie is alive. She has a face, although not all of it works –Katie has eyes but can’t see, for example. The face looks not at all like her and not precisely like the donor either. But she can go out in public now without people looking at her in horror. She doesn’t look exactly normal, though, whatever that is.
Katie has a family who loves her and has stood by her day and night to get to where she is now. She has a life, although I can’t imagine it’s easier than the one she tried to destroy.
The article is graphic and explicit about Katie’s three faces: the one she was born with, the one she was left with after the gunshot, and the one she has now. Looking at the images is not for the faint of heart. The article is also lyrical and philosophical about what’s in a face: for the person who carries that face into the world, for the rest of us who gaze at someone’s face.
For some reason, upon finishing the article, I thought of Roberta Flack’s gorgeous rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. I embed that link here.
Peter, Paul and Mary sang “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” too. Different rendition, but also lovely.
I simply don’t know what to say about this jarring article. Clearly it’s a story of a medical miracle and extraordinary surgical skill. It’s a story of someone who fought to die and then fought to stay alive. It’s a story about faces, and all that our faces convey. It’s a story of generosity, the impulse to make something good come of tragedy — in the person of the grandmother who gave permission for her lifeless granddaughter’s face to be removed and given to another. It’s a story of family fidelity, of the day and night care Katie’s parents have given her since the accident, completely letting go of their lives in order to preserve hers.
I suppose, over time, this face will become Katie’s. She will need immunosuppressant drugs forever, and they will take a toll on the rest of her body. She is prone to life-threatening infections. The transplant may fail, even with the drugs. She will need constant, intensive, lifelong care.
I want to ask her what she was thinking in the moment she put that hunting rifle under her chin and pulled the trigger. But after all the suffering to get where she is now, she may not even remember.