The world's first face transplant patient, Isabelle Dinoire, has died "after a long illness", a French hospital said yesterday (Tuesday), amid reports that her body started rejecting her face last year.
Ms Dinoire made medical history in 2005 when she received a graft comprising the nose, lips and chin of a brain-dead donor. She required the huge transplant to replace parts of her face that had been mauled by her labrador while she was in a deep slumber after taking sleeping pills.
The hospital in Amiens, northern France, confirmed the death of "Mrs D, the first patient in the world to receive a face transplant in an operation carried out by Professor [Bernard] Devauchelle and his teams on November 27, 2005."
The hospital said the Frenchwoman's death on April 22, aged 49, had been kept quiet until now to protect her family's privacy. She died "surrounded by her family", it said.
Le Figaro newspaper reported that Ms Dinoire's body had rejected the transplant last year "and she had lost part of the use of her lips". The drugs that she had to take to prevent her body from rejecting the transplant left her susceptible to cancer, and two cancers had developed, the report said.
In a news conference in February 2006, just three months after the operation, the blonde, blue-eyed mother of two went before TV cameras. She appeared to be wearing thick makeup to disguise the scars of the procedure.
Her lips were heavy and hard to move, and she spoke with a pronounced lisp but was otherwise comprehensible.
She told how she had fainted after "taking medicines to forget" personal problems. "When I woke up, I tried to light a cigarette and I couldn't understand why it didn't stay between my lips. Then I saw the pool of blood and the dog next to me," she said. "I went to look in the mirror and was horrified."
But she said that the ground-breaking procedure had given her a new lease of life. "Since my operation I have a face, like everyone... I will be able to resume a normal life," the divorcee said. "I have been saved."
One week after the transplant, she could eat and chew, and her speech improved rapidly. Four months later, sensation had mostly returned. She went on to learn to speak properly and to pull a range of expressions which made her feel "completely normal".
However, the threat of her body rejecting the transplant was a constant worry that hung over her.
The operation was led by Jean-Michel Dubernard, a world-renowned surgeon at Edouard Herriot hospital in the eastern city of Lyon, and Devauchelle, a professor of facial surgery.
Since the pioneering medical feat, around 30 people have received face transplants around the world.