Man Becomes First African American To Receive Face Transplant

Robert Chelsea received the transplant after getting into a serious car accident years earlier.

Robert Chelsea is the first African American to receive a face transplant, and at 68 years old, he is also the oldest.

In 2013, after a car accident involving a drunk driver left him with third-degree burns all over his body, Chelsea spent four months in the hospital and underwent 18 surgeries. The burns, as well as blood flow problems during recovery caused him to lose his lips, the end of his nose, and several fingertips. He was put on the waiting list for a face transplant in 2018.

According to TIME magazine, Chelsea’s wait for a donor face was longer because of the time it took to find one whose skin tone closely matched his. He was initially offered one in May 2018, but turned it down because the donor’s skin was much lighter than his own. The article’s author Jaime Ducharme explained that African Americans are less likely to donate their faces and organs due to racial disparities and historical racial injustices in healthcare.

Even still, since the first partial face transplant was performed in 2005, less than 50 have been done around the world.

After finding a donor whose skin tone more closely matched his own, Chelsea underwent the transplant in July. The surgery took 16 hours to complete and was performed at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. It is the ninth face transplant to be performed at the hospital.

Though recovering from a facial transplant can be grueling, as well as potentially fatal, Chelsea is responding well to the procedure.

“This experience has been an incredible journey for me, filled at times with many challenges. Today, however, I am thrilled to say that I’m on the road to recovery thanks to the incredible team of doctors and staff at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the love and support of my family and friends, and my unwavering faith,” he said in a statement released by the hospital.

Doctors and activists like the Association for Multicultural Affairs in Transplantation president Marion Shuck hope that Chelsea’s story helps encourage people of color to seek transplants and help close the field’s racial gap.

“Having a visible, tangible reference, especially for African Americans … is so needed,” she said.

Black patients are the largest group of minorities in need of organ transplants. In 2015, 39,200 Black patients were on the waiting list but only 6,755 received organ donations. But for the 55,224 white patients on the list, 17,179 received organ transplants, according to the U.S. Health Dept.

Organ transplant cases are not the only area in the medicine with racial disparities. A ProPublica FDA analysis found that less than 10% of research participants of drugs approved between 2015 and 2018 were Black. Pregnant women of color are also largely discriminated against and are two to six times more likely to die during childbirth.