First African American To Receive Face Transplant Waits A Year To Get The Right Face

by : Julia Banim on : 25 Oct 2019 16:32
Robert Chelsea Face TransplantRobert Chelsea Face TransplantCaters

A patient from Los Angeles has become the very first African American man to receive a full face transplant, after having waited over a year for a face with the right skin tone.


Robert Chelsea, 68, has also become the oldest ever face transplant patient following his 16-hour surgery at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in July this year.

Robert – who is the fifteenth person in the US to have undergone a full face transplant procedure – had to wait longer than previous recipients, with significant efforts put into finding a face that would work for his skin tone.

You can find out more about Robert’s story here:


In 2013, a drunk driver struck Robert’s car while he was parked on the shoulder of a highway, resulting in the vehicle bursting into flames. This led to Robert suffering third degree burns, which covered over 60 percent of his body and face.

In the years that followed, Robert endured a long and difficult road to recovery. He remained in a coma for six months and spent a year and a half in hospital, undergoing a series of 30 surgeries, encompassing skin grafts and abdominal operations.

However, surgeons were unable to reconstruct Robert’s lips, left ear, and part of his nose meaning he struggled when it came to eating and drinking, among other issues. Heartbreakingly, he was also left unable to kiss his daughter on the cheek.

After being evaluated by Brigham’s director of Plastic Surgery Transplantation Bohdan Pomahac, MD, Robert was put on a face transplant waiting list in March 2018. However, finding a suitable donor would prove far from simple.

Robert Chelsea Face TransplantRobert Chelsea Face TransplantCaters

Initially, Robert was offered a face in May 2018 but it turned out to be unsuitable, as Time reports.

The face Robert was offered was from a man who had a far lighter complexion, so much so Robert felt he would resemble ‘a totally different looking person,’ so he made the decision to turn it down.

In a Brigham press release, President and CEO of New England Donor Services Alexandra Glazier said:


It is vitally important for individuals of all races and ethnicities to consider organ donation, including the donation of external grafts, such as face and hands.

Unlike internal organs, the skin tone of the donor may be important to finding a match.

It took over a year for Robert to be offered another face, but it was well worth the wait. This time around the skin tone was a good match, and Robert happily accepted.

Robert Chelsea Face TransplantRobert Chelsea Face TransplantCaters

The team who worked on attaching Robert’s new face was led by Dr Pomahac, and included over 45 highly skilled physicians, nurses, anaesthesiologists, residents and research fellows.

Robert is said to be doing well following his surgery. Within just 10 days, he could eat, talk and breathe independently. He has also reportedly seen improvements with his speech and vision, while his new skin has started to grow facial hair.

Dr Pomahac said:

Despite being the oldest face transplant patient at 68, Robert is progressing and recovering remarkably fast.

We are looking forward to seeing a significant improvement in Robert’s quality of life.

Robert himself has expressed immense gratitude towards the donor and his family, saying:

May God bless the donor and his family who chose to donate this precious gift and give me a second chance.

Words cannot describe how I feel. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and feel very blessed to receive such an amazing gift.

[…] I am forever indebted to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the most amazing surgical and nurse team ever assembled. The place oozes compassion.

Robert Chelsea Face TransplantRobert Chelsea Face TransplantCaters

Prior to his surgery, Robert had established a non-profit organisation Donor’s Dream, with the hope of providing encouragement and education surrounding the issue of organ donation.


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Julia Banim

Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.

Topics: Health, Burns, Face Transplant, operation, plastic surgery, Robert Chelsea


Brigham And Women's Hospital and 1 other
  1. Brigham And Women's Hospital

    Brigham Surgeons Perform First Full Face Transplant for Black Patient

  2. Time

    He’s the First African American to Receive a Face Transplant. His Story Could Change Health Care