Katie Stubblefield is the youngest person ever to receive a full face transplant, after surviving a record-breaking 31-hour operation.
Stubblefield, who is 21, is currently on the cover of the September issue of National Geographic, as the result of a multi-year photo project by a National Geographic photographer who covered her recovery.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Stubblefield Lost Her Face In an Attempted Suicide Attempt
In 2014, Stubblefield reportedly tried to commit suicide at 18 years old when she saw her boyfriend’s texts with another girl. She then drove to her brother’s house and tried to commit suicide with a rifle, shooting through her chin but miraculously surviving the attempt.
Stubblefield’s brother told National Geographic that he found his sister upstairs, “and her face was gone.”
2. Stubblefield Was Taken to a Hospital & Doctors Attempted to Save Parts of Her Face
After the attempted suicide, Stubblefield was taken to a hospital where doctors sewed her eyelids shut to help her corneas heal, stabilized her jaw and cheekbones, and tried to use skin grafts to close the open wounds on her face.
However, the skin grafts kept falling off, and doctors soon suggested the idea of a “face transplant” to her parents. However, it would be another two and a half years before Stubblefield finally underwent the surgery.
Stubblefield said of the idea when it was first suggested, “I had no clue what a face transplant was. When my parents helped explain everything to me, I was very excited to get a face again and to have function again.”
3. National Geographic Photographer Maggie Steber Followed Stubblefield Around for Two and a Half Years
During the years between Stubblefield’s suicide attempt and her groundbreaking face transplant, National Geographic photographer Maggie Steber followed Stubblefield around for a full two and a half years, capturing her day-to-day life.
Steber said of the experience, “They would share their deepest thoughts with me. That’s quite a privileged position. Sometimes photographers need to put down the camera and just listen to their subjects.”
However, Steber was in Dubai when the Stubblefields finally received the call that a donor had been found for Stubblefield’s face transplant. She said, “They weren’t going to wait for me, and why should they? I fell to my knees and wept.”
Another photographer, Lynn Johnson, stepped in for Steber and photographed the surgery.
4. Stubblefield Received the Face of Adrea Schneider, Who Died in May 2017
Stubblefield finally received a potential face donor from Adrea Schneider, a 31-year-old single mother who died of a drug overdose. Schneider was a registered organ donor, but it was her mother, Sandra, who reportedly approved of the transplant. She also added that Schneider’s son was not yet aware that his mother’s face was being used, too, though he presumably will be soon.
Though she is literally using Schneider’s face, Stubblefield will reportedly not look like her, since the face will mold to her bone structure as it heals.
5. Stubblefield Has Been Living With Her New Face For Around a Year, Now
During the surgery, Stubblefield received a new nose, lips, palate, eyelids, and jaw, as well as a new facial cover. The surgery took 31 hours and required 11 surgeons to participate across several disciplines.
Stubblefield has said that she wants to go to school now to become a counselor, and to work with other suicide survivors in the future.
Steber has said of Stubblefield’s parents, “[Katie’s parents] were heartbroken and shocked at what happened, but they have embraced it. They are warriors. They’re like eagles who are protecting a young bird. And now Katie has a mission in her life. She can try to save other young lives.”