A groundbreaking surgery has given a new lease of life to an Arkansas veteran who lost his left eye and part of his face in a high-voltage electric shock. Aaron James, 46, underwent the world’s first whole-eye and partial face transplant at NYU Langone Health in New York in May.
James, who served in the military for 10 years, was working as a high-voltage power lineman in Mississippi in June 2021 when his face accidentally touched a live wire. The deadly 7,200-volt electric shock caused extensive injuries to his face: his left eye, his entire nose and lips, his left cheek area and chin, as well as his left arm.
His wife, Meagan James, drove about four and a half hours to Mississippi, where Aaron was being cared for at a local hospital. She said seeing him after the accident was more shocking than seeing him with his new eye and face.
A pioneering procedure
After being stabilized, James was transferred to NYU Langone Health, where he met Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, the director of the Face Transplant Program. Rodriguez and his team had performed three successful face transplants before, but they had never attempted to transplant an entire eye.
Rodriguez said that transplanting the whole eye was a challenge that many thought was impossible, as it involved reconnecting tiny blood vessels and the optic nerve, which carries visual information from the eye to the brain.
The surgical team found a suitable donor who had the same eye color, skin tone, and blood type as James. The donor’s family agreed to donate the entire left eye and parts of the face, including the nose, lips, cheek, and chin.
The surgery, which lasted about 21 hours, involved more than 140 surgeons, nurses, and other health care professionals. It was the first time that an eye transplant was combined with a partial face transplant.
A hopeful outcome
Five months after the surgery, James is recovering well and showing signs of health in his transplanted eye and face. He can blink, move his eyelids, and produce tears. He can also breathe, smell, and taste normally. He has regained some sensation and movement in his face, and he can smile and kiss his wife.
However, he cannot see out of his new eye yet. Rodriguez said that restoring vision is a long-term goal that will require more research and innovation. He said that the surgery was a historic first that could pave the way for future eye transplants.
James said that he is grateful for the donor and the medical team, and that he hopes his case will help advance transplant medicine. He said that he is not bothered by the fact that his new eye is brown, while his natural eye is blue. He said that he likes his new look, and that he feels more confident and happy.