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Woman, 57, who underwent the first face transplant in the U.S. dies from an infection

Connie Culp, who became the first person in the US to receive a partial face transplant after surviving a gunshot blast to the face, has died from an infection. 

Culp died 12 years after the groundbreaking operation, aged 57.

The Cleveland Clinic, where her surgery was performed in 2008, said that Culp died on Wednesday at the clinic of complications from an infection that was unrelated to her transplant.

A transplant can help recipients to resume basic tasks such as breathing, eating and speaking, and it can restore important non-verbal communication through smiles and frowns. 

The operation, which has been performed around the world only a few dozen times, can mean a life-long struggle to stop the body rejecting the implanted organ. 

Immunosuppressant drugs, which help stop such a rejection, can leave the person vulnerable to infections and cancers. 

Dr. Frank Papay, who is the chair of Cleveland Clinic’s dermatology and plastic surgery institute and was part of Culp’s surgical team, called her ‘an incredibly brave, vibrant woman and an inspiration to many.’

‘Her strength was evident in the fact that she had been the longest-living face transplant patient to date,’ Papay said in a statement. ‘She was a great pioneer and her decision to undergo a sometimes-daunting procedure is an enduring gift for all of humanity.’     

Culp was left severely disfigured in September 2004 after she was shot in the face by her husband, Tom Culp, in a botched murder-suicide attempt.   

He shot her from eight feet way, blasting off her nose, cheeks, the roof of her mouth and an eye. 

Only her forehead, chin, parts of her eyelids and her lower lip were left intact. 

Tom Culp was convicted of attempted aggravated murder and was sentenced to only seven years in prison for the shooting.

Culp’s features were so gnarled that children ran away from her and called her a monster. 

Culp underwent 30 operations to try to fix her face. Doctors took parts of her ribs to make cheekbones and fashioned an upper jaw from one of her leg bones. 

She had countless skin grafts from her thighs. Still, she was left unable to eat solid food, breathe on her own, or smell. 

In December 2008, Dr. Maria Siemionow led a team of doctors in a 22-hour operation to replace 80% of Culp’s face with bone, muscles, nerves, skin and blood vessels from a donor, Anna Kasper. It was the fourth face transplant in the world, though the others were not as extensive.

After the operation, her expressions were a bit wooden and her speech was at times difficult to understand, but she could talk, smile, smell and taste her food again.

In 2011, Siemionow said Culp had ‘a normal face’ after doctors refined the droopy jowls and extra skin they purposely left to make checkup biopsies easier.

‘She’s smiling, she’s perfect. When she jokes, she kind of flickers her eyes. Her face is vivid. You can see emotions,’ Siemionow said.

Culp made several television appearances and become an advocate for organ donation. 

Two years after her operation, Culp met with the family of Kasper, the donor, who had died of a heart attack. Culp told The Cleveland Plain Dealer: ‘They’re just really nice people.’

Kasper’s 23-year-old daughter, Becky Kasper, said she could see part of her mother in Culp, though their bone structures were different.

‘I can definitely see the resemblance in the nose,’ she said. ‘I know she’s smiling down on this, that she’s very happy.’

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