On June 26, 2016, just before midnight, Bev Bailey-Potter got the call that every parent fears the most: Her 24-year-old son Cameron “Cam” Underwood — a welder and machinist from Northern California — was in the hospital fighting for his life. Earlier that evening Cam, who’d battled depression since his teen years, had attempted suicide by shooting himself in the face.
“The doctor said, ‘Your son’s face is dust.’ We went into the emergency room and saw him. I was just in shock,” recalls Bev, 56. “The bottom of his face was covered up; he had his eyes, his forehead. We were told that he would not survive.”
Miraculously Cam did survive — but his injuries left the once-active outdoorsman reliant on a feeding tube and barely able to speak.
After reading a story in a December 2016 issue of People about a groundbreaking face transplant program at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, she booked an appointment with the program’s director, Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez.
Thirteen months after that, doctors found a perfect match in 23-year-old Will Fisher, a budding New York City writer and filmmaker who died suddenly on Jan. 5, 2018, after battling mental illness on and off for several years. That same day Cam became the recipient of a successful face transplant.
Says Bev: “He had a beautiful smile — and now he’s got a beautiful smile again.”
The Tragic Injury
The youngest son of pastor Randy Underwood, 63, and Bev, who was a legal assistant and paralegal (they divorced in 2008), Cam grew up in Yuba City, Calif., where he shared an active lifestyle — hunting, fishing and snowboarding — with his siblings Julie, 40, Aaron, 36, and Brad, 28. But underneath the happy exterior Cam grappled silently with depression, and by the time he was 23 he was relying on alcohol to self-medicate and bury his darker emotions.
“I saw that he was struggling, he was unhappy,” says Bev. “But I never thought he would harm himself.”
On that tragic night in June, after a day of drinking, Cam placed a gun under his chin and pulled the trigger. He was airlifted from a local hospital to the UC Davis Medical Center, where he was initially put in a medically induced coma and then kept heavily sedated for the next five weeks.
The Long Road to Recovery
“When I woke up, I didn’t know what was going on, where I was, what had happened to me,” says Cam, who learned that he was missing most of his face below his eyes, including his nose, jaw and teeth. His tongue remained, and his eyes were intact, but the sockets were badly damaged. “I was shocked that I would actually do something like that, and that I had survived.”
Adds Bev: “We kept the mirrors covered in the hospital, until he was ready to see himself.”
Adjusting to his disfigurement wasn’t easy.
“Communicating was a big problem. I had to write notes. Just eating was a big mess—for as much food as I got into my mouth, just as much didn’t go in,” says Cam, now 26, who covered his injury with a bandanna or a mask whenever he was out in public. “It was a tough time.”
During his five-month stay in the hospital, Cam underwent three skin grafts in the hope of rebuilding his face enough so he could become a candidate for a face transplant. But by the time Cam was discharged on Dec. 2, 2016, they were still waiting for references, and no progress had been made toward starting the process.
Fortunately it was just a few weeks later when Bev, during the family’s annual holiday trip to Lake Tahoe, bought the copy of People at the grocery store — and read the story about NYU Langone’s face transplant program. “Kate Middleton was on the cover — that’s probably why I bought it,” says Bev. “When I read that article, I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ ”
Cam and his mom met with Dr. Rodriguez March 15, 2017, and he agreed to take on Cam as a patient. And 18 months after that devastating night Cam finally received the call from Dr. Rodriguez, notifying him that a New York-based organ donation agency called LiveOnNY had found a match in Fisher — and he and Bev flew to New York.
The Life-Changing Procedure
The surgery was risky, but Cam was determined to change his life: “It was either stay the way I was or take a chance on something better — on a bigger, better life.”
During the 25-hour surgery a team led by Dr. Rodriguez attached the lower part of Will’s face (including the jaw, teeth, nose, cheeks and lower eyelids) to Cam’s disfigured visage.
“Many people ask, ‘Why would we put so much energy and resources into someone who wanted to eliminate their life?’ ” he says. “But I’ve never felt that should exclude anybody from getting state-of-the-art medical care. Cam was a good candidate for this type of operation because he was willing to put that [difficult] part of his life behind him and move forward. And this was the only type of operation that was going to get his life back on track.”
And the operation did just that.
When Cam looked in the mirror for the first time after the surgery, a month later, “I remember just a sigh of relief that I had a face again, I had a mouth and teeth again, I had a nose again—just such amazement and joy,” he says “I couldn’t be more thankful for all the hard work and the sacrifices that were made for me.”
In the 10 months since the surgery, Cam has shown no signs of rejecting his new face. He’s able to eat, speak and grow facial hair—and he’s back to playing basketball and golfing weekly; he even went skydiving last May. (“Why not?!” he says.)
“The biggest difference,” says Cam, “is just being able to go out without a mask and without people staring at me.”
Today, Cam — who manages his depression through therapy and medication — is moving forward.
“I just want to get back to work and eventually start a family,” he says.
Adds Bev: “I got my son back. And I feel so blessed that he can now live a normal life.”
Now, LiveOnNY President and CEO Helen Irving believes Cam’s story will spread the word and encourage others to become organ donors.
“It is my hope that William and Sally’s selflessness and courage will inspire others to consider registering as lifesaving organ and tissue donors,” Irving says. “It is a true story of unconditional love and a deep compassion to help another find a new life. … Nearly 115,000 people in the U.S. [are] waiting for an organ. However, this story shows that the future is bright and that transplantation is breaking new barriers. Lives are renewed. And it demonstrates that while the science evolves, the willingness of Americans to help others remains strong.”
Honoring a Life Lost
On Oct. 17 Cam and his mom were able to thank the woman who changed their lives: his donor Will’s mother, Sally Fisher. (Her son’s heart, liver, kidneys and eyes were also donated to other recipients.)
“I’m just eternally grateful,” says Bev. “From one mom to another, I feel this bond with her that I will carry forever because of the gift she gave my son.”
The transplant is also helping mend the heartbreak Sally has felt since losing her own son.
“He was extremely compassionate and wise for his age,” Sally says of Will, an accomplished chess player who studied at Johns Hopkins University. “He was the smartest person I know. That’s not just a proud mother talking, he was brilliant.”
“That’s the hardest thing about losing Will was realizing how much he had to give, and he didn’t get the chance to have that life. He had an amazing mind and I feel like it was a loss, not only for his family and his friends but for the world,” Sally adds.
And as she grieves her loss, Sally sees hope in Cam.
“I don’t think I would have survived Will’s death if it wasn’t for Cameron,” she says. ““Cameron’s got his whole life ahead of him — and I love the idea that Willie’s helping him have a better life.”