In 2013 Robert Chelsea, aged 62, was hit by a drunk driver and since then his life has changed completely. The North American suffered burns on almost all his body and face. His face remained completely disfigured, until a black donor, with a skin tone similar to his, appeared.
According to People magazine, Chelsea’s 68-year-old wait ended in July 2019. A 62-year-old man on the organ donor list died suddenly. Despite the donor’s death, the elderly could not be happier and more grateful for the possibility of resuming his life.
“Losing a loved one and being asked for something like that … I can’t imagine,” said Chelsea. “I feel hopeful that I can take some of the pieces that the family may have missed.” For this moment Chelsea waited for six long years and surgery, which took 16 hours to complete at Boston “s Brigham and Women” s Hospital.
With the feat, Chelsea became the first African American man to undergo a full face transplant procedure. Now, the elderly are recovering from delicate surgery. Although everything is now a reason for celebration and happiness, reaching such a milestone was not an easy journey. Even because receiving healthy and compatible fabrics, by itself, is already something exceptional.
Before the transplant, Chelsea underwent 30 surgeries over the course of a year and half admitted to the Hospital. Doctors were unable to reconstruct his lips, left ear and part of his nose. What ended up turning everyday activities, such as eating and drinking, into something time-consuming.
With each meal, he had to tilt his head back so that nothing would fall out of his mouth. The same was necessary for drinking any type of drinks.
A new life
In May 2018, a donor’s face had been offered to him. However, the person had a much lighter skin tone than Chelsea. Despite his deep need, the man let himself be carried away by the hope of finding someone with a similar skin tone and therefore rejected the organ.
Black people, who need organ transplants, face more difficulties. To make sense, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2015, only 17% of black patients waiting for a transplant got an organ, which represents a marked difference—especially compared to 31% of white patients who do.
“It is vitally important that individuals of all races and ethnicities consider organ donation, including the donation of external grafts, such as the face and hands,” said Alexandra Glazier, president of New England Donor Services. “Unlike internal organs, the donor skin tone can be important in finding a match.
Chelsea’s godson Everick Brown said in an interview with TIME magazine that his godfather, after the transplant, was very similar to who he was before. “It was a joy,” said Brown. “It is the first time I have used the word miracle. He will be happy!”
Chelsea has now become a kind of poster boy for the movement, which aims to encourage organ donation. There is still a long work of recovery and healing ahead, but she already feels quite optimistic about the results. “This experience was an incredible journey for me, sometimes filled with many challenges,” said the elderly man. “Today, however, I am thrilled to say that I am on the road to recovery, thanks to the incredible team of doctors and hospital staff, the love and support of my family and friends and my unwavering faith.”
Chelsea’s surgery was a real success and a great example of medical advances. However, what surprised people the most was the quick recovery of the American. In just ten days, Chelsea was talking, breathing and eating alone. Since then, he has become a voice for the organ donation cause.
“I was concerned about humanity long before this surgery,” said Chelsea, who started an NGO called Donor’s Dream. “We must help each other. That’s how I felt, and that experience only validated that even more.”
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