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How A Tragic Car Accident Made Robert Chelsea Get A Blissful New Face.

Updated: Oct 15, 2022


“When I look in the mirror, I know it is me.

But, I saw another person.

Today, I am not looking for Robert Chelsea. I am Robert Chelsea”

-Robert Chelsea.


This is a true story. This is Robert Chelsea’s story. Robert is the first African-American to receive a full-face transplant. In fact, the oldest person for the same.

After a tragic car accident, almost 60% of the body was affected by burns.

Over 30+ surgeries were performed to correct the disfigurement.

It was caused due to a car accident by a drunk driver.


And above all, a full-face transplant was placed to correct the facial injuries.

Robert’s story is a true inspiration for us. It speaks about the courage, strength, and determination to persist. It also teaches us to have faith in God.

I had the honour and privilege to interview my friend Robert and know about his journey.

Let me take you through the interview.

Stay with me; I am sure you will be amazed by my friend Robert’s strength!


Let me introduce my friend to you!

Robert Chelsea, at 68, became the first African-American patient to receive a full face transplant. He was the oldest too.

The surgery was done in Brigham and Women’s Hospital, U.S.A. He’s one of 15 face transplant recipients in the United States, out of around 40 worldwide.

Face transplants, in general, are rare. The first partial face transplant was performed in France in 2005. Since then, fewer than 50 face transplant cases have been completed worldwide.

“Hello Robert, I am so glad to have you with us today. Thank you so much for taking time out for this. How do you want me to address you during this interview?”

“Oh! I am so honoured. You can call me anything you like!”

“That is such a pleasure. I will call you Robert, my friend! Let’s get started then”.

1) Who was Robert Chelsea before 2013?

Robert was “The Stamp Man”.

(Robert smiling) I was raised on the south side of Los Angeles. I am a graduate of Manuel High School and one of four children. I have my loving daughter, Ebony.

2) Tell us about your accident and your experience. (Only if you are comfortable talking)

What caused the accident and when did it happen?

Sure! The accident happened on August 5th, 2013. I was driving home on the 605 freeway in Los Angeles, California. My car was overheated. I pulled to the side of the freeway to await roadside assistance.

There was a drunk driver - with three previous Driving Under the Influence(DUI) convictions.

He swerved across several lanes and ended up driving on the shoulder of the freeway where my car was parked.

As he continued to drive, the drunk driver slammed into my car. My car went up in the air, and it came down. A few seconds later, it exploded!

I remember a bystander, (a good samaritan), Richard Robles, rescuing me. He tried to take me from the car by my arm. By then, my arm was melting. I suffered third-degree burns on over 60% of my body and face.

3) Do you remember what happened after the accident?

I remember Richard Robles and I went on to check if the drunk driver was alright.

I was still conscious. I gave the emergency services my contact information.

And then got into the ambulance, thinking someone would pick me up from the hospital.

But when I lay down, I went to sleep and I didn’t wake up until 6 months later.

4) Are you still in touch with that person who saved you? How does it feel thinking about him or his family today?

How can I not be grateful to him?

I am still in touch with Richard. I will always be indebted for his timely help. It makes me feel grateful. Thinking of Richard and his family brings a smile to my face.

5) How did your family react to it?

My daughter Ebony tells me that she was in a state of shock, unable to believe what had happened!

Ebony was even more concerned than me.

Seeing me in such a critical condition after the accident was like “going to a movie theater and watching the scariest movie that they had out, and you replayed it over and over and over,” she says.

6) Which hospital did you get treated in? How long did the hospitalization last? Tell us in brief about your hospitalization.

I got my burns treated at the University of California, Irvine Burns Center.

From August 2013 to December 2013, I was still in a coma. During this time, I underwent more than 30 surgeries. My lips, part of my nose, and left ear were unable to be reconstructed.

The hospital has done all they could do but I was still ill. My vital organs were not improving.

So they sent me to Kindred Long-Term Hospital.

In February 2014, I woke up from a coma.

I stayed there long enough to start my physical, occupational and speech therapy. They sent me to a special hospital called Los Angeles County, Rancho Los Amigos for approximately 3 weeks.

But I was too weak for their therapy programme.

I needed more grafting on my head and amputations of my fingers and toes because of gangrene.

They sent me back to University of California, Irvine, to have grafting of my head and amputations.

After performing the grafting and the amputations, University of California, Irvine, sent me back to Kindred Long-Term Hospital for more therapy.

Then, Kindred Long-Term Hospital sent me to Paramount Meadows for recovery and therapy.

After 30 days, I was discharged. I stayed in my sister’s home. I couldn’t walk.

They transferred me to a wheelchair.

After 2-3 months, I started walking.

I stayed with my sister, Barbara for almost 4 years.

In 2015 we learned about face transplants and got in touch with Dr. Bohdan Pomahac.

(The doctor who treated me, Dr. Walter Chang, Kaiser Permanente Hospital had a friend who was Dr. Pomahac’s student. That’s how I got in touch with Dr. Pomahac)

After several intense evaluations by Dr. Pomahac and Brigham Women’s Transplant Staff, I was listed for a face transplant in March 2018.

I got my full face transplant done by a team headed by Dr. Bohdan Pomahac in Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA, USA in July 2019.

7) You told me you woke up only 6 months later after a coma. How did you feel listening to that? Were you shocked? Whom did you see first?

It felt incredible. I don’t really remember whom I saw first.

Yet, I remember having a great relationship with someone who became a very close friend during this time. I had all the confidence in him. When I was asking questions, he always gave me assurance. To every question that I asked, he answered to my satisfaction. Especially questions like “How was my daughter doing?”

8) Tell us about your fundraising? Was fundraising difficult? Who helped you in raising funds?

I am so grateful to everyone who made a donation. Their donations made a change. The press, social media, along with God’s wonderful grace made all the difference.

Raising funds was all taken care of by my friends and family back then.

Thanks to social media. It made the work easier.

9) How has this incident affected you? What changes do you make today to accommodate this new life?

I can eat and drink better now.

I have now gotten used to tilting my head back so food and water wouldn’t fall out. I hold the straw in between my teeth to sip. I use a syringe to gargle. I am happy for all that I went through.

10) Tell us about your experiences with full face transplant surgery.

A team of more than 45 surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, pharmacists, research fellows and social workers operated on me.

There were three teams.

One, preparing me.

Second team, preparing the donor.

Meanwhile, the third team was Dr. Pomahac and his transplant team. Dr. Pomahac performed 8 face transplants earlier. The team boarded a plane to procure the donor’s face.

I was being prepared for surgery, exposing my nerves and vessels that would soon be attached to the donor’s tissues using hair-thin sutures.

They were so tiny that Dr. Pomahac had to sew them under a microscope.

Within 10 days of the surgery, I was able to eat and talk.

11) Was there any trouble finding a donor for the face transplant?

Absolutely yes! The search went on for more than a year.

Dr. Pomahac and I used a 1-to-18 scale to discuss potential donors’ complexions—1 being the lightest. My shade was between 8 and 16.

It was difficult to find a shade that could match my complexion, because African-Americans have a diverse complexion.

Also, the donor’s face must be gender-specific as well.

They originally looked for donors falling from 8 to 16. After months of being unsuccessful in our search, I eventually agreed to consider donors as light as 5.

12) Did this journey impact you psychologically?

Yes, it did.

But, our heavenly father has made it all possible for me.

You have no idea what it’s like to speak to a customer, friend, or a loved one when your lips and tongue have been burned.

Despite their best efforts to hide their instinctive reactions, I could still feel their discomfort.

There was nothing I could do. My business fell apart because of it, and many of my friends drifted away.

People stared at me, because it was scary. In my opinion, I looked like a Halloween mask.

So, I do understand their reactions.

13) What is your secret to staying strong and resilient?

Trust God!

14) What's your greatest dream?

To kiss my loving daughter Ebony on her cheek.

15) Who are you grateful to?

To the donor and his family who chose to donate this precious gift. Words cannot describe how I feel. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and feel very blessed to receive such an amazing gift.

I am forever indebted to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the most amazing surgical and nurse team ever assembled. The place oozes compassion.

I am grateful to each and everyone who made this possible, be it directly or indirectly.

16) Tell us a few words the hospital.

Brigham has long been recognized as one of the world’s leaders in transplantation. Having performed the first successful human organ donor transplant, a kidney, in 1954.

The first heart transplant in New England in 1984, and the first heart-lung transplant in Massachusetts in 1992.

Brigham performed the Nation’s first full-face transplant in 2011, and the first bilateral hand transplant in New England in 2011.

20) Your message to the world? What's your life’s purpose now?

I want to emphasize on organ donation. I request you all to know the importance of organ donation. One eye can save eight lives!

Organ donation doesn’t mean that only internal organs can be donated.

Let me break that myth for you all. Even external organs like skin can be donated.

I have founded the Robert Chelsea Foundation, a non-profit, to encourage people to do the same.

21) I am so glad to have crossed your path, my friend. Thank you so much for making this possible today.

Your life and your mission to spread awareness about organ donations is beyond amazing. We wish you all the best.

Lots of love and appreciation.

Thank you so much! It was a pleasure to be here. We shall always stay connected.

Conclusion

Though facial donation is rare, Robert’s story encourages every nationality to consider organ donation. This can save lives and reduce the wait times across the country.

If you found this true story inspiring, please share this blog post with your friends and family.

Trust me, sharing can go a long way!

Please drop your comments below!

LINKS

www.donorsdream.org


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