Richard Lee Norris’s face was destroyed in a shotgun accident in 1997, forcing him into the life of a recluse; now, two years after a ground breaking face-transplant surgery, he is on the cover of American GQ
GQ magazine’s cover stars are usually all cut from the same Hollywood A-list cloth. But, the star of its latest American issue marks a radical departure for the magazine, and provides one of the most extraordinary and life-affirming stories in its history.
Pic/Dan winters For GQ
In 1997, Richard Lee Norris, then aged 22, arrived home drunk and got into an argument with his mother. In the heat of the moment, he grabbed a shotgun, pointed it at his own face and told his mother he was going to shoot himself. The gun went off accidentally, shattering the lower half of Norris’s face. Miraculously, he survived, but lost his nose, jaw, teeth and most of his tongue.
BEFORE AND AFTER: These photographs, released by the University of Maryland Medical Center, show, from left to right, the gradual transformation of Norris’ face after the mishap. The one on the extreme left shows Norris before the he shot himself, while the next image shows how he looked before his transplant. The image on the extreme right was taken 7 months after the full face transplant. PicAFP
Norris spent the next decade living as a recluse in Hillsville, Virginia, only leaving home to go shopping at night. He underwent dozens of operations to repair his face, but with little effect.
“When I was disfigured, just walking the sidewalk, I was surprised that more people didn’t walk into telephone poles or break their necks to stare at me,” he told GQ. “Now,” he continued, “there’s no one paying attention. Unless they know me personally, they don’t know I am a face transplant patient. That right there is the goal we had.”
In 2012, Norris underwent the most extensive face-transplant operation ever performed, a 36-hour procedure involving 150 doctors and nurses at the University of Maryland Medical Centre, which carried only a 50 per cent chance of survival. The transplant included tissue from the neck to the scalp, as well as the upper and lower jaw, teeth and a section of the tongue. The donor was a 21-year old man from Maryland, Joshua Aversano, who was killed after being knocked down by a van while crossing the road. Norris is in regular contact with Aversano’s family.
Two years after the procedure took place, Norris is recovering well, but there is a risk that his body could reject the new face at any time. But, for now, he is more than happy to be the pioneer of a treatment that could change the lives of many others. “When I look in the mirror,” he told GQ, “I see Richard Norris.”
Norris’s operation came 7 years after the first successful partial face transplant was carried out on Isabelle Dinoire from France, who lost her nose, lips and chin after being attacked by her pet labrador.