When Connie Culp’s husband shot her in the face in 2004, her life was permanently altered. Her nose and cheekbones were among the 80% of her face that were shattered, rendering her entirely unrecognizable. She somehow made it through, but her future was in doubt.
One child even referred to her as a “monster” when they were at the store. However, Connie was given a second chance at life five years later. Thanks to a kind donor, she had the first nearly complete face transplant in the US. The procedure, which was carried out at the Cleveland Clinic, required 23 hours of fantastic work from doctors.
After additional procedures and surgeries, she was given a brand-new face. And the outcome was nothing short of amazing.
When Connie Culp and her husband, Tom, first met and fell in love, they hadn’t even finished school. They then set out on an unknown journey. They fled together at age 16, even though they weren’t really sure what they were doing. The pair eventually decided to operate a tavern in an Appalachian town. Despite their intense affection for one another, Connie’s husband didn’t treat her well.
“My relationship with Tom wasn’t any different than living with my dad. He told me what to do, and I did it. He teased me and called me names. My dad did the same thing, so I just thought it was a normal way of life,” she mentioned.
Connie started to defend herself after receiving horrible treatment for years.
“He would push me and people would see it, and I would get up and I’d say, ‘I’m a good person, and I don’t deserve that,’” she says. “He wasn’t used to me talking back.”
But Connie’s life was irrevocably altered on September 21, 2004. Her husband shot her in the face after accusing her of making out with another man. Then he pulled the trigger and turned it on himself, but he lived. Connie was able to find her twin sister Bonnie by going downstairs. Then Bonnie contacted Alicia, Connie’s daughter.
“I always knew that he could really hurt somebody, I knew he had a potential, I just didn’t think it would be my mom,” her daughter recalled.
Connie’s nose, cheeks, mouth roof, and one of her eyes were all broken by the explosion. Her upper eyelids, forehead, lower lip, and chin were the only areas of her face that were unharmed despite being covered in fragments. Of course, the charge was horrifying. Connie claims that she was unaware of the extent of her injuries at the time.
“You’re actually in shock, and you don’t feel anything,” she said. “Your adrenaline’s going so fast that there was no pain.”
Fortunately, there was an emergency medical technician nearby. To halt the bleeding, he packed her severely damaged face with ice after scooping it up. Connie was left with partial blindness, lost her ability to smell and talk, and was forced to breathe via a surgical incision in her neck. She was lucky just to be alive.
“I lost my sense of smell. I lost my eye, my nose. My jaw they had to wire shut. I didn’t lose any teeth during the [incident], but the top of my mouth deteriorated, so I lost my whole top mouth,” Connie explained.
“I could feel my face just sliding down.”
Her husband was later sentenced to seven years in prison. In 2009, Connie said she forgave her husband the same day. Even so, the couple later divorced.
“I always will [love him.] I mean, I have two kids to him,” Culp said. “But you know what? I cannot be with him anymore,” sheexplained. “I won’t let anybody talk about that, I spent six years thinking about it. And you know what? Now, it’s a new beginning. I have a new face. I’m a new me.”
Connie underwent 30 procedures over the course of the following five years while the medical team worked to restore her face. Face transplants weren’t very prevalent back then. In actuality, nobody in the US had ever gotten one. As the first person in the US to get a new face, Connie would make history. Naturally, it would be a long time before her voyage was nearly over.
Connie made an effort to conduct her life as normally as she could as she waited. She regrettably became the target of insults from strangers. She once overheard a child telling her that she looked like a monster when she was out shopping.
“‘You said there were no real monsters, Mommy, and there’s one right there,’” Connie recalled, adding that the boy pointed in her direction.
“‘I’m not a monster,’” Connie responded, pulling out her driver’s license to show the child what she used to look like. “I’m a person who was shot.”
Connie received a number of physical and psychological examinations to make sure she was in sound physical and mental condition. Unfortunately, they had no idea when or even if they would ever find a donor, and she was aware that the ground-breaking procedure might not succeed.
She might possibly end up looking worse than she did before the shooting.
The Culp family then received some wonderful news one day, on December 9, 2008. A donor had been identified by the Cleveland Clinic; her name was Anna Kasper. Anna’s relatives spoke highly of her as a kind and lovable person.
Sadly, she had walked out onto her back porch, smoked a cigarette, and then passed away from exposure to the elements. Her family felt certain that Anna would have wished to donate her face to aid another person in need.
“Connie’s like Anna in a lot of ways,” Ron Kasper, Anna’s husband, said.
“As far as her personality and how much she enjoys life and how she smiles and is still able to have such a great attitude after everything she’s been through, and she takes everything in stride.”
“She’s a very special person,” he added. “And Anna was, too.”
“She’d give her time. She’d give her money. She gave a lot of things she didn’t have to other,” Ron added. “When they asked about the [organ] donation, we knew it was what she would want to do.”
“Everything fit together so well,” Ron said. “We knew that Anna wished to be cremated, so there wouldn’t be an open casket. And that Anna was already an organ donor. And that Anna was a match, and for there to be a match was a miracle in itself.”
“But the overriding factor was we knew it was what Anna would’ve wanted.”
In order to sew Anna’s skin, muscle, teeth, bone, veins, and arteries onto Connie’s face, Cleveland Clinic surgeons worked for 23 hours on December 10, 2008. The procedure was a great success thanks to the doctors’ long and arduous efforts.
“This is amazing both technically, surgically, but also philosophically. The face of someone else is being adopted and accepted by the face of the recipient,” Dr. Maria Siemionow, the Cleveland Clinic surgeon who led the team performing the transplant surgery, said.
“You can see a live person who is happy her life is back.”
After the transplant, Connie had a difficult road ahead of her, requiring frequent biopsies and a lot of anti-rejection medication. Connie’s face was transplanted in the hopes that it would restore her to some degree of normalcy, although there were concerns that it would not work.
That might have caused a variety of issues, including dying. Fortunately, Connie survived, but her path to recovery was difficult.
Since her donor provided the face muscles, she had to relearn how to speak. Connie even had to relearn how to walk after spending several days in bed. Additionally, several scents that she had to “learn” had been forgotten by her brain, like those of coffee and chocolate.
Connie was finally permitted to leave the hospital and check into a nearby motel, fifty-eight days after the face transplant surgery.
“You know, it was scary when I walked out,” Connie she recalled. “All I could see were my doctors up front because of their white coats. I didn’t even see the reporters. That’s probably the one day I was glad to be blind.”
After a while, she was able to travel back to Unionport, Ohio, which is located about an hour outside of Pittsburgh. Even after experiencing hell, she never lost her spirit or sense of humor.
“Right from the beginning, I was still cracking jokes,” she said. “It is a miracle,” she added. “I thought I was going to have to live my whole life looking like I did.”
Connie understood right away that undergoing a face transplant was more about increasing her function than it was about regaining her appearance.
“The importance of a face transplant was getting my mouth back in order and letting me smile again,” she mentioned.
“And now, for instance, I can drink out of a cup and eat solid food. Before, I had to use a straw all the time and eat soft foods.”
Connie’s life was once again altered by the transplant. She started taking her dog for walks while she and her buddies played darts. She claimed that, most significantly, people stopped glancing at her. Surgery to replace the patient’s face was a huge success. She felt “stronger” and “more positive” about herself as a result of it.
She was unable to save her sight, and she was left legally blind with only partial vision in her left eye.
“I just thought, walking around like I was, nobody else would ever want me,’ she said. ‘I realise that I’m not an idiot like Tom always told me.”
Connie was able to speak, laugh, smell, and taste her food once more. Most significantly, she regained her confidence and even began dating. She received a kiss from the man she was seeing, who assured her that she was still Connie. He also remarked that I was still as gorgeous as ever.
“When I put my make-up on, I feel pretty,” she said.
Sadly, Connie Culp’s story had a tragic conclusion. According to Cleveland Clinic spokesman Andrea Pacetti, she died in 2020 as a result of complications from an infection that had nothing to do with her transplant. When she passed away, the woman who underwent the first face transplant in the US was 57 years old.
“Connie was an incredibly brave, vibrant woman and an inspiration to many,” Dr. Frank Papay, chair of Cleveland Clinic’s Dermatology and Plastic Surgery Institute, who was part of Connie’s surgical team, told CNN.
“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.”
Connie Culp was a trailblazer and a role model for many. Despite suffering terrible wounds, she never gave up and recovered even more powerfully. We firmly feel she has improved the world, and we also hope she has attained peace.
Please forward this story to your Facebook contacts in honor of Connie Culp and the medical professionals that gave her a new face and saved her life.