The finale of Boston Med on ABC last week captured the incredible story of the nation’s second face transplant recipient, Jim Maki, and his donor, Joseph Helfgot. The transplant was a life-changing procedure for Maki and depicted the incredible results that can come from transplantation.
While awe-inspiring, face transplantation is not yet commonplace. When you register as a donor in the Ohio Donor Registry, your designation does not include donation of anything other than organs (heart, lungs, liver, kidneys pancreas, small intestine) and tissues (skin, bone, ligaments, tendons, fascia, veins, heart valves and corneas). Face or limb transplants require special authorization from a donor’s family. But when the right donor comes along, amazing results are possible.
In the case of donor, Joseph Helfgot, his wife, Susan, understood the power of donation. Joseph, a heart transplant candidate, relied on a heart pump to keep him alive as he waited for someone to say “yes” to organ donation. After a few close calls, a heart became available for Joseph. Unfortunately, after his transplant, Joseph suffered massive cerebral hemorrhaging and died.
Susan recalled that before her husband entered into surgery, he told her “If anything happens, I really want you to remember I’m a donor.” Susan honored her husband’s wishes and he donated the recently-transplanted heart, his liver, pancreas and kidneys. Susan was also asked to consider a revolutionary donation: using part of Joseph’s face for a man who couldn’t breathe, eat or swallow.
That man was Jim Maki, a Vietnam veteran who lost part of his face after falling onto electrically-charged subway rails. The accident caused Jim to lose his nose, teeth and all of the soft tissues in his face. He lived without a face for four years, waiting for the right donor to give him his life back. Thanks to the generosity of the Helfgots, Jim is now on the road to recovery.
Susan was able to meet Jim, and said that to see something good come out of losing Joseph was a huge comfort. Her husband’s legacy lives on through the lives he saved with his donated organs and the one he enhanced beyond measure with his donated face. His recipient expressed his gratitude: “I do now, and will forever, feel grateful to that family.”
Seeing the story of donor and recipient play out on national television is rewarding to those of us working in organ and tissue donation. It provides hope that lives will be saved and enhanced because of heroes like Joseph Helfgot. We would like to thank both families for letting us into their personal journeys and showing America the power of the “Gift of Life.”