Stubblefield discussed her experience in National Geographic's September cover story

By Emily Zauzmer
August 15, 2018 12:41 PM
National Geographic

Katie Stubblefield, the youngest American to undergo a face transplant, has a new lease on life.

Stubblefield’s journey is the subject of the cover story of National Geographic‘s September issue, “The Story of a Face,” and a National Geographic documentary.

In 2014, Stubblefield, then 18, attempted suicide after watching her mother Alesia lose her job; finding text messages to another girl on her boyfriend’s phone; and having health issues, including gastrointestinal problems and gallbladder and appendix surgeries.

Stubblefield survived, but her gunshot wound damaged much of her face.

Maggie Steber/National Geographic

Stubblefield does not remember her suicide attempt. “I never thought of doing that ever before, and so on hearing about it, I just didn’t know how to handle it,” she told National Geographic. “I felt so guilty that I had put my family through such pain. I felt horrible.”

She ended up at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where 15 specialists worked with her. “It was not great,” Brian Gastman, a doctor who treated Stubblefield, told the magazine. “Her brain was basically exposed, and I mean, we’re talking seizures and infections and all kinds of problems. Forget the face transplant; we’re talking about just being alive.”

Stubblefield and her parents
Maggie Steber/National Geographic

According to CNN, 11 surgeons conducted the 31-hour face transplant in May 2017 when Stubblefield was 21. Stubblefield’s face transplant — from Adrea Bennington, who died of a drug overdose — is reportedly the 40th of its kind in the world.RELATED: Why a Heartbroken Mother Decided to Donate Her Late Son’s Face to a Burn Victim: ‘I Have to Make Sure He Lives on Forever’Her father Robb commented, according to CNN, “You take it for granted, the different components of our faces — the bone, the tissue, the muscle, everything — but when it’s gone, you recognize the big need. Then when you receive a transplant, you’re so thankful.”

Stubblefield and her father
Maggie Steber/National Geographic

Stubblefield, who has had three follow-up surgeries, will remain on immunosuppressive drugs since transplant rejection remains a risk. She studies Braille, sees a speech therapist, and goes to therapy. She wants to attend college online and raise awareness of suicide.“So many people have helped me; now I want to help other people,” she told National Geographic.