Aaron James was the recipient of the first successful whole-eye transplant in history, carried out by a medical team at NYU Langone Health in New York. Aaron received a partial face transplant and a new window into his soul following a work-related accident that resulted in the loss of his left eye and a portion of his face.
Meagan, his wife first noticed the puffiness following surgery and the brown color of her husband’s new eye when she looked into it. Aaron’s eyes are a natural ocean blue color. She also saw his new cheek, lips, and nose, where a little stubble of beard had already begun to sprout. The emotion started when she noticed a grateful expression on someone’s face.
“It was a crazy, great, weird, strange, ecstatic, happy feeling,” Meagan said. “I was just happy he made it through, and everything was good in the moment.”
Aaron’s transplant operation was conducted on that day in late May by a team of over 140 surgeons from NYU Langone Health. The process took roughly 21 hours to complete. During the procedure, a single donor’s whole left eye as well as several facial tissues were transplanted. It was a first in medicine.
First Whole Eye and Partial Face Transplant
As a high-voltage power lineman, Aaron, a 46-year-old veteran of the military stationed in Arkansas, was working with colleagues in Mississippi that June 2021 when he unintentionally touched a live wire with his face.
Aaron suffered severe facial injuries from the lethal 7,200-volt electric shock, including injuries to his left eye, lips, cheek, chin, and arm.
Meagan’s phone rang while she and their high school daughter, Allie, were heading home from the grocery store back in Arkansas. Even though she didn’t recognize the number, she answered. The words “Aaron,” “accident,” and “serious” reached her ears.
“I could see his eye socket and everything. I was seeing his skull, and I think that’s the part that was kind of freaky for me. I was like ‘Oh, my goodness, his face is gone,’” she said. “Most of my worries was just how he was going to be when he was awake and aware.”
Discussions And Transplants
Conversations on the potential for a transplant persisted even after Aaron’s Texas medical team removed his left eye because of excruciating pain. In anticipation of a potential eye transplant, Rodriguez and his colleagues in New York requested that the Texas team save as much of the optic nerve as possible.
Rodriguez cautioned Aaron that the donor eye might not be able to restore vision as they discussed the prospect of performing a whole-eye transplant rather than just a partial face transplant. The transplanted eye and the brain will need to communicate in order for there to be sight.
Aaron’s medical team reports that there are now “remarkable” signs of health in his eye. Despite not being able to see out of his eye, he is optimistic that vision will eventually return and that his groundbreaking operation will progress the field of transplant medicine.