MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - As a teenager in Oxford, Mississippi, Katie Stubblefield seemingly had everything. Good grades, good looks, a good upbringing.
But in a moment of despair, she tried to end it all through suicide. By grace and the miracles of modern medicine, Katie now has a new outlook on life and a new face to match.
By all accounts, no 23-year-old has ever experienced what she is experiencing right now. It’s a makeover on a massive scale. Katie is relearning the most basic skills after undergoing the most rare operation.
“Just to put a frozen face on her, and say stay in bed your entire life, that’s not what this is all about,” said Dr. Brian Gastman.
In May 2017, Katie received a full face transplant becoming the youngest transplant recipient of her kind on the planet -- one of only 40 in the world.
Her journey began three years earlier in March 2014 when Katie was a high school senior in Oxford. She was a good student looking forward to college, but after some health issues and a breakup Katie went to her brother’s house, picked up a rifle and attempted suicide.
“In those moments when Alesia and I are outside our son’s home, and he’s already told and communicated to my wife she’s gone,” said Robb Stubblefield, Katie’s father. “My wife told me that she’s gone. When the detective shows up, he goes in and is shaking his head and basically physically communicating there’s no life in there. EMTs show up and all of a sudden you hear distant voices. ‘She’s alive, we have a pulse’.”
The bullet missed Katie’s brain but destroyed her face. Barely alive, she was flown to Regional One in Memphis.
“They saved her life, plain and simple,” said Katie’s father.
During her five weeks at Regional One, Katie’s head and face were covered in bandages, preventing her parents from seeing the full extent of her injuries.
“As a mom I’m thinking I’m very hopeful this accident is not as bad as they think it is,” said Alesia Stubblefield, Katie’s mother. “And maybe it can all be done in reconstruction.”
“The middle section of her face was gone,” said Robb. “To see your kid like that defies description.”
Doctors determined a complete face transplant was the only real solution and suggested the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
“I remember he made these gestures,” said Katie’s father. “If the clinic takes Katie, he said this. ‘You don’t think about it, you don’t pray about it, you don’t talk about it. You just go’.”
Over the next three years Katie underwent a series of reconstructive surgeries. Leg tissue created a temporary mouth and nose. A new jaw and lips replaced shattered tissue. A device widened the space between her eyes, and a titanium plate restored part of Katie’s skull.
When a donor face became available, Katie was ready.
“I was always playing devil’s advocate and saying do you realize the risk?" said Alesia. “She was like mom, I know, but I really think I’m going to be OK'.”
The surgery took 31 hours. We spoke with Katie and her doctor a year and a half into her recovery.
“Patients usually come back with a rejection,” said Dr. Gastman. “Katie’s never had one of those. It’s really remarkable.
Gastman continued: “She’s clearly getting more sensation back in the skin and deep in her mouth and throat. Then there is motor function. You saw earlier I was asking her to smile and pucker her lips, so that’s getting better as well."
Katie still has a long way to go.
“Some days are really good,” she said. “Some days aren’t so good.”
She has up to 20 doctors' appointments a week for the foreseeable future.
“Sorry kiddo, you’re not an end product,” said Robb. “She’s not an end product yet.”
But the young woman who just four yeras ago wanted to end it all has a new outlook on life.
“I let the circumstances get the best of my emotions,” she said.
Katie is now determined to live. She’s a medical miracle thriving with a new face.
“She says I still want to do something that makes a difference,” said Alesia.
Katie plans to go to college and focus on a counseling career.
A GoFundMe account has been created in her honor.
Their initial goal is to raise 50,000 dollars to pay for Katie and her family’s needs this upcoming year.
If you would like to donate, click >>here<<