The tragedy of Connie Culp: Woman who received US's first facial transplant after being shot dies aged 57

A tragedy left Connie with nothing but upper eyelids, forehead, lower lip and chin. Here's the murder-suicide attempt that changed everything for her


                            The tragedy of Connie Culp: Woman who received US's first facial transplant after being shot dies aged 57
Connie Culp (Getty Images)

Amid a slew of murder-suicide true-crime horror hitting the screens, a story that is yet to be explored is that of Connie Culp, the Ohio woman who was the recipient of the first-ever near-total face transplant in the US. Connie, who made international news headlines after her transplant in 2008, has died. The Cleveland Clinic, where Connie underwent surgery, announced her death on July 31 morning. But Connie was a woman full of life, despite the harrowing tragedy that led to her history-making transplant.

In September 2004, Connie's life changed forever when her common-law husband, Tom Culp, shot her in the face, in their apartment atop the restaurant-cum-bar the couple used to own. Tom next pulled the gun on himself but he survived, with far less serious injuries. Connie survived too the shot from 8-feet away, but all that remained of her face were upper eyelids, forehead, lower lip and chin.

Then 41, Connie was left almost totally blind. She revealed in a 2010 profile by the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the shot had destroyed her right eye, nose, the lower eyelids, upper lip, palate and also her top teeth. She had to undergo several surgeries to repair the damage done, but she still did not have a nose, neither could she smile or smell. In an interview with ABC News, she said she was unable to eat solid food or even drink from a cup. There was a tracheotomy tube constantly in her throat to aid breathing too.

Connie's husband, on the other hand, was later convicted of aggravated attempted murder and  was given a seven-year sentence. Surprisingly enough Connie not only forgave him but had also expressed desire to wait for him until he got out. But she later told in an Oprah Winfrey interview that she had eventually changed her mind to set the right example for her daughter. “I always will (love him),” Connie had shared with Diane Sawyer that same year. “I mean, I have two kids (by) him. But you know what? I cannot be with him anymore.”



 

In the aftermath of the shooting, Connie taught herself Braille and moving around with the help of other gadgets. When it came to strangers and children's reaction to her face - another constant nuisance - Connie would use humor to get through those comments, her fraternal twin sister, Bonnie Oberlin, told the Plain Dealer in 2010. Stumbling through life like a grand sport, Connie managed with prosthetics until December 10, 2008, when a 23-hour-long operation made history.

After two years of crafting the operation, surgeons were finally able to replace about 80% of Connie's face. The Plain Dealer lists the transplant required new skin and muscle, along with veins, arteries, teeth and even bone. During the 12 days she spent in intensive care, Connie had to relearn how to walk, speak and register smell in her brain again. Two years later, regenerated facial nerves allowed her to speak clearer and smile and eat what she craved again. Later, Connie also went on to spark a touching bond with the family of Anna Kesper, whose untimely fatal heart attack helped replace Connie's face. She also invested time as a public speaker, speaking for organ and tissue donation and on behalf of women who suffered the same tragedy as her. 

In Connie's ABC News interview, she said "If somebody points something at you and they say they’re going to do it, eventually they’re gonna do it. If your husband threatens you in any way, it’s gonna get worse.” She told the Plain Dealer she wanted her legacy to be known as someone who stood up for women who had been abused. "I’ve met probably 10 women that actually had a gun pointed at them,” she said. “The only difference is the gun wasn’t loaded. I say, ‘The next time it might be. I never thought that he’d do that to me. And look where I am.’
“I’m just lucky that somebody was able to fix me.”

“Connie was an incredibly brave, vibrant woman, and an inspiration to many,” Dr. Frank Papay, chair of the clinic’s Dermatology and Plastic Surgery Institute, said in a statement announcing her death. “Her strength was evident in the fact that she had been the longest-living face transplant patient to date. She was a great pioneer and her decision to undergo a sometimes-daunting procedure is an enduring gift for all of humanity.” As of now, the date and cause of Connie's death were not released, but her daughter Alicia Culp, intimated her followers on social media that Connie was ill.

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