Spanish face transplant man leaves hospital

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A Spanish man who received a new face in a transplant this year checked out of hospital on Tuesday, thanking doctors and the donor's family for making the groundbreaking surgery possible.

"I want to thank this family for the gesture they had as well as the medical team," the patient, identified only by his first name Rafael, told a news conference with the surgical team of Seville's Hospital Virgen del Rocio.

Rafael, whose face was severely disfigured by a genetic disorder, said he felt "joy and happiness" the first time he saw his new features in a mirror after undergoing the 24-hour operation in January.

Roughly two-thirds of his face -- disfigured by a condition called neurofibromatosis, in which nerve tissue develops tumours -- were replaced by the tissue, nerves, arteries and veins of a dead donor.

Rafael will only fully recover the ability to move his tongue three months from now, and still had difficulty talking at the press conference.

But doctors said he already can feel pain in his face, and distinguish between hot and cold, and has started to shave.

Before checking out of hospital, the young man hugged the chief surgeon, Tomas Gomez Cia, who headed the 23-strong team that performed the operation.

Last month a hospital in Barcelona said it had in March carried out the world's first complete face transplant, giving a man who lost his face in an accident a new nose, skin, jaws, cheekbones, teeth and other features.

It was the third face transplant to be carried out in Spain and only the 11th such operation to have been staged out around the world.

The first successful face transplant was performed in France in 2005 on Isabelle Dinoire, a 38-year-old woman who had been mauled by her dog.

Other face transplants have been performed in the United States and China.

Spain has become a world leader in organ donation since it set up a network of transplant coordinators in 1989 at all hospitals in the country which closely monitor emergency wards to identify potential donors.

When they learn of a death, they tactfully talk to the grieving families to get permission to harvest organs and help save the lives of others.

Only about 15 percent of families approached in Spain refused consent for organ donation, a huge drop from the 40 percent who refused in the 1980s before the system was set up.

© 2010 AFP

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