Joe DiMeo tends to “roll with the punches.” The 22-year-old always looks for the positives, even when coping with extreme adversities, like a July 2018 car accident.
DiMeo sustained third-degree burns on over 80 percent of his body when he fell asleep while driving home from a night shift in July 2018, causing his car to flip over and then explode.
Though he was pulled to safety by a passerby, his injuries included amputated fingertips, severe facial scarring, and the loss of his lips and eyelids — affecting his vision and ability to lead a normal, independent life.
He remained in a hospital burn unit for four months, where he received numerous grafts and life-saving blood transfusions, and was placed in a medically induced coma for nearly two and a half months.
DiMeo survived, but with significant losses: doctors had to amputate his fingers due to the severe burns, he had no lips, and his eyelids were completely fused. “They did what they could at the best of their ability for me,” DiMeo tells People.
Still, DiMeo always looked for the positives. Before he left the hospital, one of the plastic surgeons who worked with him had taken a video and sent it to Eduardo D. Rodriguez, MD, DDS, a world-renowned expert in reconstructive plastic surgery at NYU Langone Health in New York City. In March 2019, DiMeo spoke with Dr. Rodriguez, who brought up the possibility of a face and double hand transplant.
DiMeo has become the world’s first person to undergo a successful face and double hand transplant.
“I liked his attitude—he’s a really down-to-earth guy,” DiMeo says of Dr. Rodriguez. “When I finished talking to him that day, I was like, ‘I’ve got to do this.’”
Now, thanks to the successful transplant, the 22-year-old is slowly regaining back his old life.
“He’s the most highly motivated patient I’ve ever met,” said Dr. Rodriguez, head of the team that conducted the surgery. He said the procedure was a huge challenge to everyone involved. “There have been over a hundred hand transplants performed successfully, and close to 50 face transplants.”
So fundamentally there was no reason why they couldn’t occur together, successfully. The team that operated on Joe DiMeo involved 80 people across six surgical teams and two adjoining operating rooms.
“We needed to avoid infection, we needed to have this operation occur as fast as possible, we had to be very selective with the donor, and we had to implement every state of the art technology that would ensure the complete success of Joe’s operation, and that’s exactly what we did.”
Rodriguez added that Joe’s healthy lifestyle and motivation were crucial factors to the success of the operation.
“Joe is healthy, he’s young, he’s strong, he loves to exercise, he eats healthy, and he had that one special element which is going to be required for this operation,” said Rodriguez, “A high level of motivation. And he had a tremendous sense of hope.”
Following the surgery, DiMeo spent 45 days in the ICU, followed by nearly two months of inpatient rehab. During this time, DiMeo has learned to open his new eyelids, move his new hands, and smile. The 22-year-old believes he’s had a second chance at life.
“There’s no excuse to not be motivated, or not to do my therapy,” said DiMeo. He thanked his donor for their selflessness and sacrifice.
Watch the video below for more details: