The Man with Someone Else’s Face (6/12)

Wednesday 22nd April 9.00pm

The documentary strand exploring remarkable tales of human experience continues. This edition follows a leading Chinese surgeon as he performs a partial face transplant on a man mauled by a bear. Meanwhile, a burns victim hopes that the successful outcome of this case will pave the way for his own full face transplant.

In 2005, doctors in France made international headlines when they performed the first-ever face transplant. Six months later, surgeons in China surprised the world with the news that they had performed their own facial transplant. This film follows the tale of this pioneering treatment and the prospects it holds for other patients.

At the Xijing military hospital in Xian, Dr Guo Shuzhong has become accustomed to treating patients with horrific injuries. “Some patients are so badly disfigured, they don’t look like human beings anymore,” he says. News of the face transplant in France is of especial interest to Dr Guo, who wants to make his hospital, and his country, a world leader in this extreme new form of surgery.

A candidate for the first Chinese face transplant appears in early 2006. Word reaches Dr Guo of a tribesman in the remote Yunnan province who suffered horrific injuries after being mauled by a black bear.

After studying photos of the patient, Li Guoxing, Dr Guo invites him to the hospital – a gruelling, four-day journey over 1,500 miles. Li does not speak Mandarin Chinese and is unused to the big city. Accompanied by his nephew, who acts as translator, he undergoes his first medical exam. Dr Guo finds that Li’s face has been utterly destroyed by the bear – his nose has gone, his cheekbone is broken and there is a gaping wound in his cheek, revealing the tissue below. “His condition is critical,” says the plastic surgeon. “It’s going to be very difficult.”

Before surgery can begin, doctors must find a donor face that matches the age and shape of Li’s own. The face is eventually provided by a road-accident victim. Now surgeons begin a mammoth 18-hour operation to remove the face and stitch it onto Li’s head. The surgery is particularly complicated because bone from the donor must be attached to recreate Li’s nose, and each blood vessel must be sown under a microscope. However, the initial results are good. “When I looked in the mirror, I was very happy. It was like a dream,” says Li.

A face transplant requires a lifetime of follow-up treatment. To stop his body rejecting the donor skin, Li must take drugs to suppress his immune system. He faces three threats in the form of infection, metabolism changes and an increased risk of cancer. But after 18 months in hospital, a homesick Li checks himself out against medical advice and returns home.

Li is now so far away from modern medical facilities that he runs the risk of complications with his surgery. Dr Guo soon learns that Li’s skin is rejecting the transplant. He travels to Yunnan to confront his patient and discovers that Li has stopped taking his drugs because he was feeling better. Despite Guo’s entreaties to move to the city full-time, where doctors can keep an eye on him, Li insists on staying in his mountainside village. The outcome of the pioneering surgery now hangs on Li’s promise to resume his medication. “I feel frustrated,” says Guo. “I spent more time looking after that patient than I did my own family.”

If Li’s transplant fails, it could have serious consequences for other patients hoping to undergo the procedure. Among them is petrochemical plant worker He, who sustained appalling burns whilst saving his colleagues from a gas leak. His act of heroism left him totally disfigured and he has been shunned by society. Surgery is his only hope of returning to a normal life. “This is my second chance at life,” he says. He has already moved closer to the hospital and is prepared to follow the doctors’ instructions. But will his dreams be realised?

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