She Shot Off Her Face. Now She Has a New One


At 18, Katie Stubblefield lost her face. At 21, she became the youngest person in the U.S. to undergo the still experimental surgery. Follow her incredible story.

This story is difficult to look at. Yet we are asking you to go on the remarkable journey of how a young woman received a face transplant because it reveals something profound about our humanity. Our face conveys who we are, telegraphing a kaleidoscope of emotions. It’s our doorway to the sensory world, allowing us to see, smell, taste, hear, and feel the breeze. Are we our faces? Katie Stubblefield lost hers when she was 18. When she was 21, doctors gave Katie a new face. This is a story of trauma, identity, resilience, devotion, and amazing medical miracles.

This story appears in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

THE FACE LIES on a surgical tray, eyes empty and unseeing, mouth agape, as if exclaiming, “Oh!”


Sixteen hours ago surgeons in Operating Room 19 at the Cleveland Clinic began the delicate work of removing the face from a 31-year-old woman who was declared legally and medically dead three days earlier. Soon they will take it to a 21-year-old woman who has waited more than three years for a new face.

For a moment, the face rests in its astonished solitude.

Surgeons, residents, and nurses, suddenly silent, gaze at it in awe as clinic staff, like unusually polite paparazzi, move in with cameras to document it. The face, deprived of blood, grows pale. With each second of detachment, it looks more like a 19th-century death mask.


Frank Papay, a veteran plastic surgeon, picks up the tray, carrying it carefully in his gloved hands, and walks to Operating Room 20, where Katie Stubblefield waits.

Katie will be the youngest person to receive a face transplant in the United States. Her transplant, the clinic’s third and the 40th known in the world, will be one of the most extensive, making her a lifelong subject in the study of this still experimental surgery.

Looking down at the face he carries, Papay feels a kind of reverence. It’s an amazing thing, he thinks, what some people will do for others—to give them a heart or a liver, even a face. He says a silent prayer of thanks and takes the face to its next life.

Source: nationalgeographic

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