CLARK, NJ — Lifelong Clark resident Joe DiMeo’s one wish was to one day be able to hold a burger or slice of pizza again. As simple as it may sound, DiMeo was unable to live a functional and independent life.
He suffered from third-degree burns over 80 percent of his body from a horrific car crash in 2018 and had to move back in with his parents to help care for all of his basic needs.
Now, thanks to modern medicine, DiMeo made history as the world’s first person to successfully receive a combination face and double hand transplant.
“I feel great,” said 22-year-old DiMeo. “It is just natural smiling and laughing and raising my eyebrows.”
DiMeo’s life forever changed on July 14, 2018, when he was driving on Route 22 in Hillside on his way home from working the night shift. His car went off the road, hit a curb, and flipped over causing an explosion and catching fire.
A good Samaritan, who happened to be R&B singer Ted Wizard Mills, the original lead singer of the group Blue Magic, pulled DiMeo out of the car. (The rescue was caught on video. Warning: it includes profane language and images that may be disturbing.)
DiMeo says he remembers nothing from the crash.
“People just told me what happened,” DiMeo said.
DiMeo ended up in the burn unit at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston for four months of which he remained in a medically induced coma for nearly two and a half of those months.
“After the coma I realized I can’t do anything by myself and I just laid around all the time,” said DiMeo.
DiMeo moved back in with his parents, Rose and John, who helped care for him as he underwent about 20 reconstructive surgeries.
There was nothing more conventional surgery could do for DiMeo and that’s when he met Dr. Eduardo D. Rodriguez, the Director of the Face Transplant Program at NYU Langone Health.
“We just clicked together. We started doing testing and X-rays and a whole bunch of stuff to examine my body for the transplant,” said DiMeo.
In October 2019, Rodriguez said DiMeo was an ideal candidate for the program. However, DiMeo only had a 6 percent chance of having an exact donor match.
Adding in other factors such as bone structure and skin tone matching meant that “finding Joe the perfect donor was like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Rodriguez.
Luckily the Gift of Life Donor Program was able to help find a donor in Delaware in August 2020.
“This transplant was possible because a selfless family said yes to this unique donation. The donor’s mother shares that she is proud and comforted that her son was able to help another young man while also saving and healing others through organ and tissue donation. She says her son will always be her angel,” said Richard Hasz Jr. with the Gift of Life Donor Program.
DiMeo completely trusted Rodriguez and had no hesitations about the extremely rare transplant.
“If [Rodriguez] said it’s doable, it has to be doable. I had no hesitation of anything. I said let’s do it and I was ready from that day on,” said DiMeo.
Rodriguez and his team of 80 transplanted both hands to the mid-forearm, including the radius and ulna, three dominant nerves to the hand, six vessels requiring vascular connections, and 21 tendons. And the full face transplant, which included the forehead, eyebrows, both ears, nose, eyelids, lips, and underlying skull, cheek, nasal, and chin bone segments.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime gift, and I hope the family can take some comfort knowing that part of the donor lives on with me,” said DiMeo. “My parents and I are very grateful that I’ve been given this second chance. We’re also incredibly thankful to Dr. Rodriguez and the team of therapists, nurses, and surgeons who helped me get to where I am today.”
This marked the first successful combination transplant case of its kind in the world. There had been two other simultaneous face and hand transplant attempts but in those cases, one patient died due to infectious complications, and another required removal of the hands after they failed to thrive.
In DiMeo’s case, he immediately responded to the transplant.
“I was able to talk as soon as I woke up. And it’s actually extremely rare. In most cases, they have to teach a person how to talk with their face but it just clicked for me and I was able to talk even through the ventilator. The doctors were extremely impressed,” said DiMeo.
DiMeo said even smiling, laughing and raising an eyebrow became a natural movement for him. While other aspects he had to work on. What DiMeo wanted most was to hold a burger or pizza slice again.
“In rehab, they made a burger out of Playdough and I practiced holding it, picking it up. I was training my hands to hold the burger because when you get the surgery done, you have no strength in your hands. You could barely move them but you have to keep on working them out. Now they are mobilized now.”
Four months after the transplant surgery, DiMeo can now dress and feed himself, throw a ball to his dog Buster, shoot pool, and is back to working out and lifting weights. Currently, he has 20 pounds of grip strength.
“That is not heard of for someone 5 months out of transplant,” said DiMeo. “It usually takes up to a year and a half or so. I guess it’s my motivation to get back on my feet and get back to normal.”
DiMeo’s outlook on life is something to be admired. Since the crash DiMeo says he had no doubt in his mind he would ever get back on his feet.
“My motivation was to just keep going and don’t stop,” said DiMeo. “And now I am here. And I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.”
A GoFundMe has been set up by DiMeo’s parents to help cover the medical expenses. To learn more click here.