What comes to mind when you think of someone’s face? Their identity and how they look, perhaps? Well, one brave woman had to learn to live with her face being permanently unrecognizable after battling to overcome injuries almost too horrific to imagine.
Connie Culp suffered this dreadful fate after being shot at point blank range back in 2004. The bullet was fired by her husband and hit her in the face, causing life-changing injuries. In fact, Culp, from Steubenville, Ohio, was left so badly disfigured that radical surgery was the only option. Consequently, she went on to receive a full face transplant, the first of its kind in the U.S.
Tragically, Culp later said that she had an inkling something bad might happen to her one day. By all accounts her husband Thomas had a hair-trigger temper and was a resentful sort. At the time of the shooting, the pair owned and managed a bar, the O.K. Corral in Hopedale, OH. “[Thomas] was jealous and money was tight with the bar,” Culp recalled. “We owned it together and it put a strain on us.”
“Sometimes he would break things in the house when he’d get mad,” she went on. “And then that night something just snapped, he just got his shotgun and shot me.” That night was the night of September 20, 2004. The couple had been running the bar for just six months.
The shooting took place in an apartment above the bar and it changed Culp’s life forever. The bullet from her husband’s gun tore away a large part of Culp’s face; her upper jaw, cheek and nose all vanished, leaving behind just her forehead, chin and eyes. Miraculously, Culp survived, but the price she paid was enormous.
Left without a nose, Culp was unable to smell. Minus most of her jaw, smiling was out of the question. And her sight, too, was ruined, after fragments from the bullet all but blinded her. After pulling the trigger on Connie, Thomas Culp had turned the gun on himself, but, like his wife, he survived. However, his murder-suicide attempt would later see him jailed for seven years.
Despite her horrific injuries Culp recalls the life-changing moment clearly. “I remember everything,” she said in September 2011. “That’s what the doctors can’t believe. I remember him lifting the gun and what he says to me and then firing. It’s an image that will never leave me, for the rest of my life.”
Culp spent the next few months under the surgeon’s knife as doctors treated her gruesome injuries. She had lost her right eye in the shooting and had only slight vision in her left, while the wounds to the area around Culp’s nose were so severe that she underwent a tracheotomy to enable her to breathe. Things were looking decidedly grim, so a plastic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, OH, was called in to help.
By coincidence, in October 2004, just weeks after the terrible shooting, the Clinic was granted permission to carry out a pioneering face transplant operation. Not knowing when this might take place, surgeons wondered if Culp might like to put herself forward as their very first patient. She readily agreed and underwent the first of a staggering 30 operations aimed at both fixing the existing damage to her face, and preparing her for any possible future surgery. Tragically, Culp’s injuries had left her almost unrecognizable and there was much work to be done.
Moreover, the extent of Culp’s disfigurement meant that people would often stare at her when she ventured out in public. One example that sticks in her mind was the time a little girl came up to her in a grocery store and called her a monster. Culp took out her driver’s license so the girl could see what Culp had looked like before the incident. “I had a bad person shoot me,” Culp explained. “That’s why you never pick up a gun.”
Then, in October 2008, four years after the shooting, Culp was placed on a transplant waiting list. And astonishingly, just two months later, surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic found a suitable match. Anna Kasper of Lakewood, OH, had died of a heart attack and would provide the face for Culp’s groundbreaking operation.
That operation took place in December 2008 and featured eight surgeons, 20 nurses and a whole host of technical support staff. The surgery itself took a grueling 22 hours, after which Culp spent a further 12 days in intensive care. Fortunately, though, the operation was a success, and Culp was discharged from hospital 58 days after the operation. She’d become the first person in the U.S. to undergo a full face transplant.
Two years after the surgery, Culp spoke to CNN. “I can smell now,” she said on December 27, 2010. “I can eat steak, I can eat almost any solid foods, so it’s all getting better.” However, Culp will continue to face challenges for the rest of her life. “You still have to fight and live with the memories of why you needed a transplant every day,” she said the following September.
Meanwhile, Dr. Maria Siemionow, director of plastic surgery research at the Cleveland Clinic, who led the operation, was delighted with the results. “As you can see we have now a healthy person and happy person,” she said, referencing Culp’s ability to smile, frown, talk and breathe through her new nose. Siemionow added that Culp was also “fully integrated back in her community.”
Given the ghastly events of September 2004, you might assume that Culp would feel hatred towards her former partner, but amazingly she does not. Indeed, a year after her transplant, Culp confessed, “I still love my husband, I forgave him the day he did it. I have to.”
Her magnanimous words notwithstanding, Culp still took the decision to put her marriage behind her and divorced Thomas Culp prior to his release from prison. Luckily, she had been able to rely on her two children by him, Steven, 30, and Alicia, 28. Both had been unwavering in their support.
Fast forward to 2018 and Culp now finds herself an inspiration to others undergoing similar things. In January 2018 she visited the Center for Organ Recovery & Education (CORE) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to share her miraculous tale with volunteers, recipients and donor families. And it was a story that likely inspired everyone who heard it.
Susan Stuart, CORE’s CEO, was certainly one of that number. “It gets tough when you’re out there in the community and people have misconceptions,” she said. “It’s easy to just say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this again, but when you get to hear a story like Connie, it sure motivates you to say, ‘I want to go out there and I want to register as many people as I can.’”
Moreover, in spite of the horrific consequences of her ex-husband’s attack, Culp refuses to be despondent. On the contrary, she remains positive and hopes to promote organ donation by inspiring others. “I was given a miracle when I survived the shooting”, she told the Daily Mail in September 2011. “Then I got a second miracle when I survived the face transplant.”
“It’s still tough, but my life is so much better now,” she went on. “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I want to be treated the same as I was my whole life, before the shooting. After all, if I dwell on the past I’ll have no life to live.”