Robert Chelsea, who suffered from severe injuries after getting hit by a drunk driver in 2013, had to wait for a donor who matched his skin tone

By Julie Mazziotta
October 24, 2019 05:08 PM
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J. Kiely Jr./Lightchaser Photography

After months of waiting for the right donor, the first African American man to undergo a full face transplant is recovering from a successful procedure.

Robert Chelsea, 68, finally underwent the surgery in July, after a year and a half on the face transplant list. He was first offered a donor face in May 2018, but the skin tone was so much lighter than his own that he was hesitant to accept it. Chelsea was fearful that he would be “a totally different looking person,” he told TIME.

Chelsea has led a difficult life the last few years — he was left severely disfigured after he was hit by a drunk driver in 2013. He underwent 30 surgeries during his year and a half in the hospital, but doctors could not reconstruct his lips, part of his nose and his left ear. The lack of lips made eating and drinking taxing — Chelsea had to tilt his head back when he consumed food or water so it wouldn’t fall out of his mouth.

But Chelsea was fine with waiting for the right match for a new face, even if it would be tough to find. There are a lack of black donors of any type, and only 17 percent of African American patients in need of an organ transplant received one in 2015 — far less than the 30 percent of white patients who found a donor.

Robert Chelsea before surgery
J. Kiely Jr./Lightchaser Photography

“It is vitally important for individuals of all races and ethnicities to consider organ donation, including the donation of external grafts, such as face and hands,” Alexandra Glazier, President and CEO of New England Donor Services, said in a statement released by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, which performed Chelsea’s transplant. “Unlike internal organs, the skin tone of the donor may be important to finding a match.”

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Chelsea finally got his match in July 2019, from a 62-year-old man with a near-identical skin tone who had suddenly died.

“Losing a loved one and being asked something like this … I can’t imagine,” Chelsea told TIME. “I do feel hopeful that I can pick up some of the pieces that the family may have lost.”

After a 16-hour surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital requiring over 45 doctors and nurses, Chelsea became the first African American to undergo a full face transplant, and just the 15th person nationwide.

Robert Chelsea during surgery
J. Kiely Jr./Lightchaser Photography

Chelsea healed quickly, and was able to eat, talk and breathe on his own after just ten days. He now wants to shed light on the importance of organ donation, and encourage more people to do it with his nonprofit Donor’s Dream.

“I was concerned about humanity way before this surgery,” he said. “We must help one another. That’s the way I felt, and this experience has only validated that even more.”

Chelsea still has more healing to do, and has been at the hospital for follow-up care. But he’s doing well.

“This experience has been an incredible journey for me, filled at times with many challenges,” he said in a statement. “Today, however, I am thrilled to say that I’m on the road to recovery thanks to the incredible team of doctors and staff at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the love and support of my family and friends, and my unwavering faith.”