Connie Culp, the first face transplant recipient in the United States, has died, according to the Cleveland Clinic, which performed the surgery.
Cleveland Clinic confirmed the news on Twitter Friday saying, “We are saddened by the loss of Connie Culp,” who they described as “an inspiration to all of us at Cleveland Clinic.”
She was 57.
The exact cause of death has not been released, but Culp had already been in the hospital for several days, NBC-affiliate WKYC in Cleveland, Ohio reported.
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“Connie was an incredibly brave, vibrant woman and an inspiration to many. Her strength was evident in the fact that she had been the longest-living face transplant patient to date,” Dr. Frank Papay, chair of the Cleveland Clinic’s Dermatology and Plastic Surgery Institute, said in a statement. “She was a great pioneer and her decision to undergo a sometimes daunting procedure is an enduring gift for all of humanity.”
Culp arrived at the Cleveland Clinic after her then-husband shot her in the face before turning the gun on himself in 2004. He survived and was sent to prison for seven years.
In 2008, doctors began a 22-hour procedure to replace 80 percent of Culp’s face with that of a deceased donor. Before receiving the transplant, Culp had already undergone nearly 30 other corrective surgeries.
While the transplant could never return Culp’s original looks, it helped her regain her senses after the shotgun blast shattered her nose, cheeks, the roof of her mouth and an eye.
In 2009, Culp said that the smell of soap made her realize her new face was working.
After the transplant, Culp dedicated years to sharing her story and speaking out about domestic violence as well as educating and encouraging others who would undergo transplant surgeries.
Surgeon Dr. Maria Siemionow said that her journey helping Culp’s recovery inspired her research into reducing transplant rejection.
“Thinking about Connie is thinking about someone who’s not giving up, and I’ll not give up,” she told WKYC. “We are connecting the donor and recipient bone marrow cells to support face transplantation and other organ transplants in order to induce tolerance and reduce the need for lifelong immunosuppression,”