Imagine seeing your dead brother’s face transplanted onto another man. Well, Rebekah Aversano just experienced it first-hand.
Joshua Aversano was tragically killed in a car accident at age 21 in Maryland in the US. He has just been accepted by the U.S. Marines, but was hit by a van when crossing the street early one night.
Richard Norris accidentally shot himself in the face in 1997. He arrived home drunk at around 5pm, grabbed a shotgun, and told his mother he was going to shoot himself. He did not know that the gun was loaded – and when it fired, it left him with no teeth, no nose and only part of his tongue.
The men were born more than a decade apart and lived three hours away from each other; neither one knew of the other prior to Aversano’s death.
But now, their existences have intersected in a most surprising way — because Aversano’s face was transplanted onto Mr Norris’.
Aversano’s sister Rebekah recently met 39-year-old Mr Norris for the first time since the face transplant has ‘settled’– and the poignant reunion was filmed for a 60 Minutes segment.
“When Rebekah walked in and saw Richard, she just gave him hug and she took a step back and just looked at his face,” 60 Minutes reporter Allison Langdon tells Mamamia of the moving moment.
“And there was this moment, it was so beautiful, and she said, ‘can I touch it?’
“She touched his lips, his nose, ran her fingers over his eyebrow… and she said: ‘I do see Josh, I do see Josh’.”
After feeling Mr Norris’ face, Ms Aversano declared: “Wow, this is the face I grew up with.”
Langdon describes the moment as “beautiful”.
“It was so emotional, it was such a beautiful moment,” she recounts.
It took eight years for Mr Norris’s mother, Sandra, to discover trail-blazing surgeon Dr. Rodriguez, who spent a further seven years researching and practising the ambitious surgery on cadavers and a brain-dead patient.
In 2011, Joshua Aversano was rushed to the hospital where Dr Rodriguez worked, where he was declared brain dead. It was a tragic time for his family – and then, the doctor came to them with an extraordinary request.
“Part of me started to feel offended – like, ‘What are you doing, I just freaking lost my only brother, who was 21 years old, and now you’re asking to take his face as well,'” Rebekah Aversano told 60 Minutes.
In the end, however, the family made the decision to let the monumental surgery proceed. Ms Aversano explained her family’s decision on 60 Minutes.
“I can only imagine how you guys must have felt watching your son living the way that he had been living and going through what he went through. We had in our hands to give to you life – we couldn’t not do it. We couldn’t just keep it to ourselves.”
Mr Norris, who previously endured more more than 30 operations in an unsuccessful attempt to restore his features, underwent the 36-hour face transplant to receive Mr Alversano’s teeth, jaw and even tongue in 2012.
The complex surgery involved 150 doctors and nurses, and Mr Norris had a 50 percent chance of dying on the operating table.
There was another risk, too: the chance that Mr Norris might psychologically struggle to cope with waking up to see a brand new face in the mirror.
“(Mr Norris’ surgeon) Dr Rodriguez actually explained to me there are very few patients he would have taken this risk with,” Langdon tells Mamamia.
“There was a hand transplant done a couple of years ago and the patient, when he woke up he totally freaked out – he wanted it off, he wanted it gone. There was always this great fear that Richard would wake up with this new face and have a similar breakdown that what he was looking at wasn’t his old face.”
Despite those fears, the surgery was remarkably successful.
When Mr Norris saw his new face in the mirror for the first time, he was lost for words.
“I looked and then I started touching and I couldn’t find the words, then I just hugged [Dr Rodriguez] and said, “Thank you.”
Mr Norris has even developed feeling in his face, despite being told that would never happen.
“That was actually a surprise to us all,” Mr Norris told 60 Minutes. “The first thing I got to smell was freshly cut grass.”
“They think because they’ve taken so much of Joshua’s face… the nerves have fused together,” Langdon explains. “So he now smells with Joshua’s nose and he tastes with Joshua’s tongue.”
But the procedure was not without its risks, some of which linger years after the transplant.
Mr Norris takes anti-rejection medication daily and constantly checks to ensure his body is not rejecting his face.
“Every day I wake up with that fear: Is this the day? The day I’m going to go into a state of rejection that is going to be so bad that the doctors can’t change it?,” he says on the 60 Minutes program.
Langdon adds: “They have no idea how long his face will last; his body could reject it in five years time and if that happens he will die. Or he could live to be 90.”
For now, however, the transplant has dramatically changed Mr Norris’ life for the better.
Mr Norris became a recluse in the aftermath of his accident, refusing to leave the house unless he was hidden behind a mask. He was frequently suicidal. His seclusion from the outside world was so complete that Dr. Rodriguez was concerned about his integration back into society if the surgery succeeded.
“You think, he lived for 15 years where he rarely left his house, he cut himself off from all of this friends, he couldn’t eat dinner with his family, he ate through a tube through his stomach,” Langdon says of Mr Norris’ life prior to the incredible surgery.
“What’s really beautiful is he’s now dedicated his life to organ donation and spreading the word about organ donation, which he says is now Joshua’s legacy,” she says. “What I love is that he hasn’t taken any of this for granted and he’s so mindful of the gift that the family has given him.”
Mr Norris has also fallen head-over-heels in love, and has forged a new life with his partner, who first contacted him after seeing his story on TV.
“He’s now in love. Melanie, his girlfriend is now one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met,” Langdon said.
“She saw his story on the news and wrote him an email because she had been incredibly overweight for many years, she locked herself away for many years and became a recluse. (Now) they have this life together in New Orleans.”
The first time the couple met in person, Mr Norris was so nervous he was shaking.
“He was trembling. He was so scared,” Melanie recalls fondly.
Best of all, Mr Norris is now able to go out in public without feeling the need to cover up.
“Just to see him walk down the street with his head held high is so lovely after seeing the pictures of him, shoulders hunched, hiding,” Langdon said.
“He said to me, ‘all I’ve ever wanted to be is just be another face in the crowd’.”
And that’s an experience that, at last, Mr Norris gets to savour.
As he says on the show: “I am now able to walk past people and no one even gives me a second look.”