Four years after she shot herself in the face in a botched suicide attempt that left her grossly disfigured at age 18, Katie Stubblefield has become the youngest person in America to receive a face transplant.
Now 21 years old, Katie is giving thanks to her faith, family and the work of a host of medical experts from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio where she underwent an intense 31-hour full-face transplant for her second chance at life.
"To reach this point of recovery has oftentimes been a difficult road to travel, but I'm thankful there's been a road," she said in a Cleveland Clinic release.
The injury to Katie's face had left her unable to see, speak, breathe through her nose, swallow food, chew or move her tongue. The groundbreaking procedure replaced 100 percent of Katie's facial tissue, and required the skills of experts from 15 specialties, including 11 surgeons who worked in two operating rooms.
Doctors replaced Katie's scalp, forehead, upper and lower eyelids, eye sockets, nose, upper cheeks, upper jaw and half her lower jaw, upper and lower teeth, some facial nerves, facial muscles and skin to give her her new look.
Katie's journey is chronicled in an extensive and graphic report by National Geographic in which her will to live is much more palpable than that fateful day in 2014 when her teenage self thought she would be better off dead.
"I'm just very thankful to be alive," Katie said in the report. When he mother, Alesia Stubblefield, asked "even though you have to go through all this?" she nodded her head indicating "yes."
Cleveland Clinic surgeon Brian Gastman, who was an integral part of the team involved in Katie's transplant procedure, highlighted why Katie needed a face transplant after her devastating injury.
"It's hard to describe the importance of a face but being able to kiss, being able to show emotion, those are basic parts we take for granted every day. We project to the people in front of us and they project back," he told National Geographic.
Katie's recovery since the surgery, he said, has been remarkable.
"We've been very surprised by the remarkable recovery she's made. She's by far not done and she has a long way to go but in this case, we're talking about someone who's had the most extensive trauma imaginable," he said.
Prior to going into the surgery Katie's family showered her with prayers and she is asked in the documentary if she had any second thoughts about it. She didn't hesitate with her response.
"I get a second chance at life now. This is like the beginning of another chapter. Very poetic right?" she quipped.
Some eight months and 22 days after the transplant, Katie is seen meeting Sandra Bennington who donated the face of her granddaughter, Adrea Schneider, to the attempted suicide survivor. Adrea died of a drug overdose at 31, leaving behind a son.
After the surgery, in the film Bennington walks into the Stubblefield's family home with a smile on her face and asks: "Who is this lovely person?"
"It's so good to meet you. You look beautiful," she added warmly while holding Katie's hand.
Katie responded by thanking her for her kindness in approving the use of her granddaughter's face.
"I'm so happy I could meet you. Thank you so much for your kindness and just, what you've given me," Katie said.
"It's your gift. It is," Bennington replied as Katie is overcome with emotion.
Bennington then joined Katie and her parents in prayer.
Doctors say it will be about two years before they will see any true stability in Katie's new face.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 40 face transplants have now been done worldwide and their medical facility is one of just six U.S. institutions to offer the procedure.
"Today, we can dramatically improve the lives of people whose facial trauma would have been inconceivable to treat a few decades ago," Gastman said in a release. "With her new nose, lips, palate, eyelids and jaw, Katie now has the opportunity to rejoin society and have a future like any other young adult."