Saturday, February 18, 2012

Face Transplant as Hero's Journey

Dallas Wiens
Images of 25 year-old Dallas Wiens are all over the Internet, especially in unguarded contexts that invite repellent invective in stupid comments. But Raffi Khatchadourian, writing in The New Yorker recently, recounts Wiens’ riveting story as a hero’s journey—how he went from handsome wrong-headed teen to philosophical Melon Head, to heroic recipient of the first full face transplant in the U.S. How the arc of a young man’s journey became a crucible for intrepid scientists and human possibility. His grace in survival, his willingness to hang on against all odds became an inspiration, and the impetus behind medical miracles that came together around him.

Scholar and noted mythologist Joseph Campbell taught that all peoples in all times idealize human potential in a “Hero’s Journey":

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, a plastic surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, has led the surgical team that has performed all of the full face transplants in the United States. Pomahac explains, “Full face transplantation include the forehead, eyelids, nose, lips, chin, and cheeks, with or without underlying    bone… [and] has been considered nearly impossible, because of the complexity of the blood supply—as well as ethical, psychological, and social implications."

In 1997—the year, incidentally, that doctors had to excavate my own face to get at a fast-growing bone cancer in the sinus space behind my right cheekbone—the hot action thriller was a fabulist brain teaser called Face-Off: Bad-guy Nicholas Cage switches faces with good-guy John Travolta, effectively becoming each other for the balletic chase and spectacular explosion of those climactic cigarette boats. In the end, the bad guy dies and the good guy gets Travolta’s face back. It was diverting and preposterous.

Now, a total of 18 patients have full facial transplants. 
And it is always a hero’s journey. 
Thanks to Mr. Khatchadourian and The New Yorker for giving Dallas Wiens, Dr. Pohamac, and all the others, the epic context they deserve.