Despite his devastating injuries, Mr Chelsea remained upbeat and kept an “exceptional” attitude
Speaking to Time, Robert Chelsea said he had rejected the first face he was offered because it was “too fair” and he couldn’t bear becoming “a totally different person”. At 68, he is not only the first and only African-American face transplant patient — but also the oldest recipient of a face transplant ever.
Mr Chelsea was hit by a drunk driver in 2013 while waiting for his overheated car to cool down on the side of a Los Angeles freeway.
His car instantly burst into flames, and he was rushed into hospital with third-degree burns covering more than 60 percent of his body.
One of his surgeons described him as “one of the sickest patients we’ve had”.
As doctors fought to keep him alive, they gave him medications to keep his blood pressure under control that drew blood away from his extremities and towards his heart.
The tissue from his lips, nose and fingers began to die, and Mr Chelsea lost his lips, left ear, the end of his nose and several fingertips.
His daughter Ebony described seeing him in critical condition as like “going to a movie theatre and watching the scariest movie they had out, and you replayed it over and over and over.”
He spent the next two and a half years in hospital, enduring more than 30 surgeries to graft skin onto his body and repair the damage caused.
In cases like this, patients offer suffer such psychological trauma that the risk of depression and suicide is extremely high.
However doctors said Mr Chelsea remained upbeat and kept an “exceptional” attitude despite his devastating injuries.
He joked to the publication that he had never been a “knockout looker” before the accident, and compared his face to a Halloween mask.
“Do you see the way they look at me? It’s cute. They’re curious.”
In May 2018, he was offered a new face but turned it down because the donor had a lighter skin tone, and he wanted to wait for a better match.
According to Time, changing a patient’s racial identity can have potentially disastrous consequences.
As a result, a skin tone match is considered crucial for visible transplant procedures in order to minimise the possibility of psychological trauma.
It took another year to find a suitable face that was a near perfect skin colour match for Mr Chelsea.
According to his doctors, he was still a bit unsure even after the surgery had been approved.
He had “gotten used to tilting his head back so food and water wouldn’t fall out of his nearly lipless mouth”.
In the end he decided to go through the procedure because he wanted to eat and drink normally, but most of all because he wanted his kiss his daughter on the cheek.
In July, he received a full transplant in a surgery that lasted 16 hours and included 45 physicians, nurses, anaesthesiologists, residents and research fellows at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
The procedure, which was paid for by a government grant, was the 15th performed in the US.
Face transplants are rare: fewer than 50 have been completed worldwide since the first partial one in France in 2005.
Mr Chelsea’s story highlights the disparities between black and white patients in the US, where black patients make up 30 percent of the transplant waiting list but only 13 percent of the country’s population.
In 2015, only 17% of black patients awaiting an organ transplant got one, compared with about 30% of white patients.
Despite dying of many diseases at higher rates, there is a donor shortage of black patients partly because of a deep-rooted and widespread mistrust of the healthcare system.
Days after his surgery, Mr Chelsea was able to eat, talk and breathe on his own and doctors say he has made an “astonishing” and “remarkably fast” recovery.
“This experience has been an incredible journey for me, filled at times with many challenges,” he said in a statement.
“Today, however, I am thrilled to say that I’m on the road to recovery thanks to the incredible team of doctors and staff at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the love and support of my family and friends, and my unwavering faith.”
It is hoped that his story will inspire black Americans and their families to come forward to donate their organs.
“Having a visible, tangible reference, especially for African Americans…is so needed,” said Marion Shuck, president of the Association for Multicultural Affairs in Transplantation.