A gunshot survivor has spoken for the first time since having a face transplant following a suicide attempt.
Cam Underwood, 26, was left with just a forehead, eyeballs and tongue when he tried to take his own life two years ago.
Since then has undergone multiple operations in the most technologically advanced face transplant ever.
Cam said: ‘I have a nose and a mouth again, so I’m able to smile, speak, and eat solid foods. I also don’t get as many stares or questions from strangers.
‘Even though I’m still recovering and gaining back some sensation and mobility, I’m so happy with the results.’
‘I’ve been able to get back to many of the activities I love, like being outdoors, playing sports, and spending time with my family. I hope to get back to work soon, too, and someday start a family.’
Before his suicide attempt he suffered depression years and told his parents that he had considered killing himself.
He woke up in hospital in California five weeks after taking a gun to his own head, unable to eat and talk, and ashamed to see people without wearing a mask.
Dr Eduardo Rodriguez from New York University Langone Health heard about his case and in January this year a donor for the face transplant became available.
His recovery has been so remarkable that he was able to take part in a skydive within just a few months of the transplant.
Dr Rodriguez said: ‘I can at least check off the box that a face transplant can tolerate jumping 15,000 out of the air – and it all held together. I think this photo [of him skydiving] shows Cam is living and doing the things he loves.’
At one point the operation was in jeopardy because of an arctic storm that hit the US but he made it from California to New York for the operation.
His donor was Will Fisher who died in New York after a battle with mental illness. He was a registered as a donor and a similar age to Cam so his mother Sally agreed to the transplant.
Cam said during an emotional press conference: ‘Mom, Dad, Julie, Aaron, and Brad, thank you for not giving up on me. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it.
‘I especially want to thank Live On New York and Will and Sally Fisher – my donor and his mom.
‘I want Sally and her family to know how much my family and I appreciate their gift and that I will always honour Will’s legacy.’
Dr Rodriguez said: ‘For all of us it’s really remarkable to be part of this. A mother who cried every day, finally her prayers were answered. And his father too, they finally get to see their child whole again.’
Cam added: ‘I also want to thank Dr Rodriguez and his amazing team at NYU Langone Health. All of the other doctors, nurses, therapists, staff, as well as the assistance we’ve received from myFace, have been incredible. Everyone has been just amazing.’
To recreate Cam’s face doctors used 3D printing to build a pre-surgical structure and align his bones – previously they would have used a silicone mould.
Explaining the process, Dr Rodriguez said: ‘When we first met Cameron, we were confident we could improve his appearance and, more importantly, his function and quality of life.
‘Advances in medical technology allow us to more rapidly evaluate donors and recipients for face transplant, and to perform surgery more safely and efficiently.
‘But, in the end, it’s all about the patient. Cameron has put in the work and has made the necessary commitments.’
‘Cameron has not lived with his injury for a decade or longer like most other face transplant recipients have.
‘As a result, he has not had to deal with many of the long-term psycho-social issues which often lead to issues like severe depression, substance abuse, and other potentially harmful behaviours.’
Before his suicide attempt, Cam was a welder working for his stepdad.
However, life became difficult when he broke up with his high school sweetheart, he lost touch with his closest friends and one of his brothers moved away.
He started drinking as he slipped into a deep depression.
On June 26, 2016, he took the decision to try and kill himself – a decision that changed his life forever.
His mum spent 160 days at his bedside, living in the hospital car park in a trailer. He was eventually released in February this year and made it home to Yuba City in time for Easter.
Cam is now focused on his new life.
He said: ‘Will and his family made an incredible sacrifice to give back to me what had been lost. I will never forget that.
‘I’m also eternally grateful to Dr Rodriguez and his face transplant team.
‘My family and I could not have made this journey without them. We hope my experience inspires others who have severe facial injuries to have hope, as I was inspired by others who came before me.
‘The journey hasn’t been easy, but it’s been well worth it.’