New Face…Who Dis?

The First African American Face Transplant Recipient

Robert Chelsea before life-changing face transplant surgery

Robert Chelsea before life-changing face transplant surgery

Jordan Myers, Associate Editor-in-Chief

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It took a 16-hour long surgery and a team of over 45 medical professionals to make Robert Chelsea the first African American face transplant recipient. Robert Chelsea has not only become the very first African American to receive a face transplant, but also the oldest at sixty-eight years old. He’s one of just 15 recipients in the United States, out of around 40 worldwide done since 2005.

After a drunken driver slammed into his car in 2013, Robert Chelsea was ravaged by third-degree burns covering half of his body. After going through thirty surgeries in hopes to reconstruct his face, he was then placed on the transplant list (UNOS) in March of 2018. Two months later, Chelsea was notified of a face, but the skin tone was much lighter than his, so he turned it down. He then waited for more than a year and was finally notified of a face matching his skin tone perfectly.

“May God bless the donor and his family who chose to donate this precious gift and give me a second chance,” Chelsea said in a statement. “Words cannot describe how I feel. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and feel very blessed to receive such an amazing gift.”

According to the hospital, Chelsea “is likely to achieve near-normal sensation and about 60 percent restoration of facial motor function within a year, including the ability to eat, smile and speak normally,” says the hospital’s press release. His was the ninth face transplant procedure done at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“Until recently, African Americans were less likely than white people to receive transplants of any kind. At one point, they waited almost three times as long,” Jerry McCauley, chief of nephrology at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital explained. In 2015, UNOS rolled out a new system that removed much of the systemic bias. Today, the wait time for kidneys is approximately the same for both races, though there’s still a disparity among heart and lung recipients.

Robert Chelsea after transplant surgery

According to Organdonor.gov, African Americans make up nearly 30% of the waitlist for transplants, compared to almost 41% for white people. Yet African Americans only receive about 21% of transplants, while white people get more than 55%.

“It’s going to be exciting,” says McCauley. “Other African Americans will see this gentleman and know this is for them, too. You don’t have to worry about getting a transplant with a white face. You can have a face that makes sense for you.”

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