A military veteran who received the first-ever whole-eye and partial-face transplant is speaking out about the life-changing surgery.
The recipient, 46-year-old Aaron James of Hot Springs, Arkansas, was working as an electrical lineman in 2021 when his face touched a live wire — and received a 7,200-volt electric shock.
As a result of the accident, James lost his left eye, most of his left arm, his nose and lips, his front teeth, his left cheek area and his chin, according to a press release from NYU Langone Health.
On May 27 of this year, James underwent a 21-hour surgery.
It was led by Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M.D., DDS, director of the Face Transplant Program and chair of the Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone.
The surgical team included more than 140 medical professionals.
James received an entire left eye and a portion of a face from a single donor.
This was the world’s first transplant of a whole human eye and the only successful combined transplant, the release stated.
Aaron James received an entire left eye and a portion of a face from a single donor, in the world’s first transplant of a whole human eye and the only successful combined transplant. (Joe Carrotta - NYU Langone Health)
It was Rodriguez’s fifth face transplant.
In a press conference on Thursday, Nov. 9, James spoke about the progress he's made in the months since his surgery.
He described June 10, 2021, the day of the accident, as "a day I don’t remember but one I’ll never forget."
He also said, "It was a test of strength and willpower. From the time I woke up from a six-week coma, they were already talking about a possible chance of a face transplant."
James said he already knew of Dr. Rodriguez’s and NYU Langone’s strong reputation.
"I didn’t feel like there was anyone else who could do this the way that Dr. Rodriguez and his team could — and I think they’ve proven that."
James went on to thank the donor and the donor family.
Aaron James of Hot Springs, Arkansas, is shown from years ago. He served in the National Guard for 10 years. (James family)
"Without them, none of this could have been possible," he said. "I have the utmost respect for them, to be able to make this decision to help people that they don’t know, and to give me this gift from their family to live on with, to take care of … We are so grateful and thankful."
James also thanked his doctors and care team, as well as his wife, Megan, and his daughter, Allie.
"Without them and their support, I don’t think I could have made it through this," he said.
"The mere fact that we’ve accomplished the first successful whole-eye transplant with a face is a tremendous feat many have long thought was not possible," Dr. Rodriguez said in a press release from NYU Langone.
"We’ve made one major step forward and have paved the way for the next chapter to restore vision."
Dr. Marc Siegel, clinical professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center and a Fox News medical contributor, was not involved in the surgery, but he described Dr. Rodriguez as a "groundbreaking facial transplant surgeon."
Said Dr. Siegel to Fox News Digital, "He is a pioneer in the field, and his success rate of recipients returning to normal life is increasing with each case."
Doctors are still not sure whether James will regain sight in the transplanted eye — but there are encouraging signs.
Six months after the surgery, his new eye is receiving direct blood flow to the retina and it is showing "remarkable signs of health."
Based on the restoration of blood flow to the retina, Siegel said he is "optimistic that at least some vision might be restored, which could be crucial for those who lose vision traumatically or for other reasons."
Even if James’ eye does not regain sight, "from a cosmetic standpoint, it would still be a remarkable achievement," Rodriguez said in the NYU Langone release.
Just a portion of the eye and face transplant surgical team is pictured here. The total surgical team included more than 140 medical professionals. (NYU Langone Health)
"Aaron has been extremely motivated to regain the function and independence he lost after his injury. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect patient," the doctor said.
"We owe much of our success in this monumental endeavor to the exceptional institutional support we receive at NYU Langone and the unwavering dedication of our world-class team in delivering the highest level of care to our patient."
The doctor also said, "This achievement demonstrates our capacity to embrace the most difficult challenges and drive continuous advancements in the field of transplantation and beyond."
The road to healing and recovery
After the transplant surgery, James spent 17 days in the intensive care unit.
He was then discharged for outpatient physical, occupational and speech therapy.
Aaron James appeared at a Thursday press conference with Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Vaidehi S. Dedania, retina specialist in the Department of Ophthalmology at NYU Langone. (NYU Langone Health)
In September, he returned to his Arkansas home with his wife and daughter.
He will continue to visit New York City for monthly follow-up appointments with his care team.
"I will forever be thankful to Dr. Rodriguez and his team for changing my life," James stated in the NYU Langone release.
"My family and I wouldn’t have been able to navigate this difficult journey without their expertise and support."
"Our hope is that my story can serve as inspiration for those facing severe facial and ocular injuries."
Melissa Rudy is health editor and a member of the lifestyle team at Fox News Digital.