• Thursday, Jul 07, 2022
  • Last Update : 04:24 pm

Lucky to be alive, owner of new face, hands learns to feel life anew

  • Published at 01:55 pm February 4th, 2021
Joe DiMeo
A combination of handout photos shows 22-year old Joe DiMeo before and after he successfully underwent a 23-hour long transplant surgery on August 12, 2020, at NYU Langone in New York for a new face and hands NYU Langone Health/Handout via Reuters

On July 14, 2018, DiMeo's car crashed, rolled over and exploded, leaving him with third-degree burns over 80% of his body

At 22, Joe DiMeo is rediscovering a range of sensations on his hands and face, from warmth to coolness, and from wetness to the touch of another person.

DiMeo is still getting used to his hands and face. He has had them for less than six months, the product of breakthrough surgery after a fiery accident left stumps where his fingers used to be and his old face severely disfigured.

"You know, it's really surprising to me when something new touches it or I touch something new and I can feel it for the first time," he said in an interview.

As he pushes himself through hours a day of rehab, DiMeo said he is driven by the goal of moving out of his parents' home in Clark Township, New Jersey, and even getting behind the wheel of a car again.

"Driving is the biggest goal I have so far," he said.

It was driving that started his nightmare.

Coming home from his night-shift job as a product tester on July 14, 2018, DiMeo's car crashed, rolled over and exploded, leaving him with third-degree burns over 80% of his body.

He spent four months in the burn unit at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey, part of the time in an induced coma, and endured some 20 reconstructive surgeries that still left him with only limited use of his hands and face.

Lucky to be alive, DiMeo was referred in March 2019 to Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, who heads the plastic surgery department at NYU Langone Health and had already performed three successful face transplants.

On August 12, Rodriguez led a team of more than 140 surgeons, nurses, and other staff in a 23-hour procedure that gave DiMeo a new face and pair of hands in the first such double transplant ever performed.

"We wanted to give him not only an operation that made him look better, but it ultimately had to work ideally, especially with the hands," Rodriguez said.

DiMeo's recovery is still a work in progress with up to five hours of rehab a day, but Rodriguez said his patient is doing amazingly well.

"It's a testament to him as an individual, his commitment to his therapy and his willingness to not give up," Rodriguez said.

DiMeo marks his progress by reflecting on the things he is now able to do now, like fixing his own breakfast and doing his workouts by himself. But he is not slowing down.

"I see myself, you know? It's coming back really fast ... It's me now," he said. "You just got to roll with the punches, whatever life throws at you."

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