Face transplant man becomes GQ cover star
Richard Lee Norris's face was destroyed in a shotgun accident in 1997. Now, two years after ground-breaking face-transplant surgery, he is on the cover of American GQ
Published 29/07/2014 | 12:15
GQ magazine's cover stars can be a fairly predictable bunch. From Hollywood eye candy such as a swimsuited Jessica Alba to a brooding James Franco or Michael Fassbender, they are invariably cut from the same superficial A-list cloth.
But the star of its latest American issue marks a radical departure for the magazine, and provides one of the most extraordinary and life-affirming stories in its history.
In 1997, Richard Lee Norris, then aged 22, arrived home drunk and got into an argument with his mother. In the heat of the moment, he grabbed a shotgun, pointed it at his own face and told his mother he was going to shoot himself.
The gun went off accidentally, shattering the lower half of Mr Norris's face. Miraculously, he survived, but lost his nose, jaw, teeth and most of his tongue. As he told GQ, there was flesh, bone and blood on all four walls of his bedroom.
Mr Norris spent the next decade living as a recluse in Hillsville, Virginia, only leaving home to go shopping at night. He underwent dozens of operations to repair his face, but conventional surgery could only redress a small proportion of the damage.
"When I was disfigured, just walking the sidewalk, I was surprised that more people didn't walk into telephone poles or break their necks to stare at me," he told GQ.
"Now," he continued, "there's no one paying attention. Unless they know me personally, they don't know I am a face transplant patient. That right there is the goal we had."
In 2012, Mr Norris underwent the most extensive face-transplant operation ever performed, a 36-hour procedure involving 150 doctors and nurses at the University of Maryland Medical Center, which carried only a 50 per cent chance of survival. The transplant included tissue from the neck to the scalp, as well as the upper and lower jaw, teeth and a section of the tongue.
The donor was a 21-year old man from Maryland, Joshua Aversano, who was killed after being knocked down by a van while crossing the road. Mr Norris is in regular contact with Mr Aversano's family.
The operation came just seven years after the first successful partial face transplant was carried out on Isabelle Dinoire from France, who lost her nose, lips and chin after being attacked by her pet labrador. Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center believe the procedure carried out on Mr Norris could have far-reaching consequences for the many others who have suffered facial disfigurement, including soldiers injured in conflict.
Two years after the procedure took place, Mr Norris is recovering well, although he will have to take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of his life, and there is a risk that his body could reject the new face at any time. "Every day," he said, "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?"
But for now he is more than happy to show the world his face, and to be the pioneer of a treatment that could change the lives of many others. Above all, he is happy to have something approaching a normal life again.
"When I look in the mirror," he told GQ, "I see Richard Norris."