July 2018 changed Joe DiMeo’s life forever. The 20-year-old was driving down route 22 in New Jersey when he fell asleep at the wheel. The resulting fiery crash caused 80% of his body to be covered in third-degree burns, but thankfully a passerby pulled DiMeo from the car before it completely exploded.
Unfortunately, his burns were so severe that he lost his eyelids, ears, lips, and his fingertips had to be amputated. Fast forward two years to August 12, 2020. The now 22-year-old underwent a revolutionary surgery that resulted in the first ever successful simultaneous face and hand transplant in the entire world.
The grueling, 23-hour-surgery was led by Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez at NYU Langone Medical Center, and involved transplanting large pieces of skin which have been prone to rejection in previous cases. The medical team kept the surgery quiet for the last several months while DiMeo healed and they watched to see whether his body would reject any part of the surgery before they openly reported it as a success.
Before the August transplant, Joe had undergone 20 reconstructive surgeries to address the plethora of issues caused by the burns. Due to all the blood transfusions and skin grafts DiMeo received after the accident, the likelihood of finding a compatible donor who wouldn’t be rejected by Joe’s fragile immune system was extremely low.
But on August 10, a perfectly matched donor arrived at NYU Langone Medical Center. Two operating rooms were prepped and a team of 80 medical personnel were ready to being the intense procedure. Speaking to CNN, Dr. Rodriguez shared:
“We always begin the operation with a moment of silence to honor the donor family, to respect their great loss, to never forget the donations that have been made. In all these operations it’s important to recognize that someone must give up their life so that others can continue living.”
After the surgery, DiMeo had to spend 40 days in the ICU as his body healed from the traumatic experience. But he has healed at an incredible rate, and now has functional hands that allow him to again do things such as throw a ball and lift weights, activities he could no longer do prior to the transplant surgery. Of his recovery, DiMeo says:
“This progress, so far, has gone ahead of schedule. My motivation to get things done is really high up there.”
Joe’s doctors have marveled at his motivation and determination to not let this accident prevent him from leading a full life. DiMeo wanted to go public with his story in hopes of motivating others to push through their own trials and tragedies, and to share the incredible medical feat he was part of. The Clark, NJ resident had this to say to the NY POST about his incredible post-surgery appearance:
“There’s always light at the end of the tunnel. Never give up and never let your appearance slow you down. Always look at the good things.”