Aaron James received the world’s first whole-eye transplant after surviving a high-voltage electric shock in 2021.
The groundbreaking procedure, which many believed was impossible, was performed by doctors at NYU Langone Health. While James, a 46-year-old military veteran, doesn’t have vision in the transplanted eye, the operation is still considered to be a success.
He’s also hopeful that his operation will get things going for future surgeries.
Two years ago, James survived a nearly fatal electric shock while while working as a high-voltage lineman in Hot Spring Village, Arkansas. His face had accidentally come into contact with a live wire, which caused him to lose his nose, lips, and left eye.
All the tissue in his chin and left cheek was also lost, as was most of his left arm.
The groundbreaking surgery, which happened back in May, took over 21 hours and involved over 140 surgeons and other healthcare professionals. In addition to the whole-eye transplant, which is the world’s first, he also received a partial face transplant.
The donated eye and face came from the same donor and the former had never been removed from the original socket; the optical nerve and surrounding tissue were also intact.
Due to the small size of the blood vessels in the eye area, however, the whole-eye transplant was still very laborious. Reattaching the optic nerve was also challenging as it required surgeons to inject adult stem cells into the nerve, to trigger the production of healthy new cells.
Now, five months after the transplant, the back of the eye is receiving proper blood flow. While James isn’t able to see out of the eye, it’s still considered a success as nothing like it has ever been achieved before, according to the director of the Face Transplant Program Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez.
He added that there isn’t any scientific literature about such a transplant and that many had originally thought it was impossible.
So far, his body has not rejected the transplant. Doctors believe it’s because the eye has a separate immune system from the skin. He also avoided major complications like an infection around the brain in the crucial months after the operation.
More Than Just Vision
Dr. Joseph Riozzo, a professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, believes a functional whole eye transplant (ie. vision restoring) is currently “beyond our capabilities.”
He explained that for it to be functional, countless nerve cells would need to be reconnected to a specific target, and not in a random fashion.
In James’ case, however, while the whole-eye transplant isn’t functional, it has provided many other benefits. For one thing, he is no longer stared at when he goes out; he can walk down the street like a regular person.
Before the partial face and whole-eye transplant, he could not taste either due to the loss of his nose nor could he eat solid food. His wife would have to make soups, which he would drink through a straw as he only had a small hole in his mouth.
James has stated that he is extremely grateful to the donor and their family and that he “thanks them every single day.”