Richard Lee Norris face transplant recipient from University of maryland

The victim after the historic face transplant. (Photo: University of Maryland)

BALTIMORE (AP/ABC7) - A 37-year-old Virginia man injured in a 1997 gun accident has been given a new face, teeth, tongue and jaw in what University of Maryland physicians say is the most extensive face transplant ever performed.

University of Maryland Medical Center officials announced Tuesday that Richard Lee Norris of Hillsville is recovering well after last week's surgery, beginning to feel his face and already brushing his teeth and shaving.

He's also regained his sense of smell, which he had lost after the accident. Norris has spent the past 15 years living as a recluse, and the transplant will give him his life back, said Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, the lead surgeon.

"It's a surreal experience to look at him. It's hard not to stare. Before, people used to stare at Richard because he wore a mask and they wanted to see the deformity," Rodriguez said. "Now, they have another reason to stare at him, and it's really amazing."

It was the 23rd face transplant since doctors began doing the procedure seven years ago.

Shuttling to Baltimore

Steve Craven, a volunteer pilot with with Angel Flight, and fellow pilot Rob Alpaugh had grown accustomed to Norris' face during constant flights, using their own gas and planes, from Hillsville to Baltimore.

"The only place he would take off his mask was the local cafeteria because he felt safe with the local people," Craven said.

On Tuesday, Craven was able to visit with Norris for the first time since the surgery.

"He gave me a hug and shook my hand," he said. "To see how good he looks is just fantastic."

Over the hears, Norris has taken 78 trips thanks to Angel Flights, an Craven says he's talked about becoming a pilot himself and, someday, starting a family.

"This is the first step of his life being back on track," Craven said.

Most extensive transplant of its kind

The 36-hour operation was the most extensive because it included transplantation of the teeth, tongue, upper and lower jaw and all facial tissue from the scalp to the base of the neck, Rodriguez said.

Because it included so much facial tissue, the incisions are farther back and less visible, he said.

The first full face transplant was performed in France in 2005 on a woman who was mauled by her dog. The Cleveland Clinic performed the first face transplant in the U.S. in 2008.

The Department of Defense has been funding some face and hand surgeries with the goal of helping wounded soldiers. More than 1,000 troops have lost an arm or leg in Afghanistan or Iraq, and the government estimates that 200 troops might be eligible for face transplants.

The University of Maryland's research on transplants was funded by a grant from the Office of Naval Research, and doctors said they hope to begin operating soon on military patients.

Officials provided little detail on Norris or the circumstances of the accident that took his face. He graduated from high school in his small southwest Virginia hometown in 1993 and was employed at the time of the accident.

Since then, he has lived with his parents and has not had a full-time job, Rodriguez said.

"This accidental injury just destroyed everything. The rest of his friends and colleagues went on to start getting married, having children, owning homes," Rodriguez told The Associated Press. "He wants to make up for all of that."