It’s a new day for Joe DiMeo.
For the first time in history, doctors at New York University’s Langone have successfully undertaken a simultaneous face and bilateral hand transplant, giving DiMeo, 22, a future he never could have dreamed of 3 years ago after a devastating car accident.
On Wednesday, August 12, a team of more than 140 surgeons, nurses and other hospital staff were on-hand during the 23 hour surgery.
The most astounding aspect of the operation wasn’t the well-orchestrated symphony of doctors. It was Joe himself.
“There’s always light at the end of the tunnel,” Joe, from Clark, N.J. told The Post of his amazing transformation. “Never give up and never let your appearance slow you down. Always look at the good things.”
Joe’s long road to recovery was led by Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, one of NYU’s preeminent plastic surgeons.
“His spirit is so strong,” Dr. Rodriguez told The Post of Joe, who was involved in what should have been a fatal car accident in July 2018 after he fell asleep at the wheel. His car burst into flames.
The odds were stacked against Joe, who underwent 20 reconstructive surgeries to address widespread third-degree burns, which covered over 80% of his body. His injuries were extensive: amputated finger and severe facial scarring that left him without lips or eyelids.
But since then, Joe has embodied the definition of survivor. “He knew in his mind that this was not going to be the end of him,” Rodriguez said.
Joe decided to go public with his story out of a sense of duty: “I feel like it’s a big step in science,” Joe said. “I’m pretty proud to be a part of it.”
Even after so many procedures to try and put him back together again, “he was still a functional cripple,” said Dr. Rodriguez. In order to go the next step towards becoming an independent adult again, “conventional surgery was not going to solve his problems.”
That’s when the team at NYU’s Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery decided to begin their search for Joe’s donor match — a single candidate with not only a viable face and limbs, but a blood panel that wouldn’t send Joe’s highly sensitized immune system into rejection.
Due to multiple blood-transfusions and skin grafts immediately following the accident, the probability of finding a compatible donor was down to a mere 6%. But a donor, who remains anonymous, arrived at NYU on August 10, 2020. Two days later, Joe received his new hands and face.
The team completed the 23-hour surgery at breakneck speed. They waited until now to announce the success of the operation, since often, many similar transplants don’t go as well.
Nevertheless, Dr. Rodriguez never lost hope, even while he was temporarily transferred to the pandemic frontlines last year.
“Despite the fact that our priorities changed, and we had to care for patients that were in dire straits, in the back of our mind never stopped thinking about identifying Joe’s donor,” said Dr. Rodriguez.
Over the past few months, Joe has made incredible strides, achieving small milestones all the time: getting dressed, walking the dogs, playing pool with his friends.
His next big goal: driving again.
“[But] I’m not trying to rush into it,” Joe added. “Plus the DMVs are closed — I can’t change my license picture.”
On a more serious note, he insists that his new appearance hasn’t changed him.
“I’m still the same guy, you know, before the surgery and after surgery,” he said. “Even before the burns I was still the same guy. Just my stages of life. I just keep rolling with the punches and keep moving on. Nothing really holds me back.”