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GA Aircraft Facilitate Treatment for Face Transplant Patient

November 6, 2012

A Hillsville, VA man named Richard Norris, who was disfigured in a 1997 gun accident, received a face transplant earlier this year, thanks to surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center and a group of volunteer pilots who flew the man from his home to the hospital, not once, but 78 times. 

Angel Flight Mid-AtlanticIt was the 13th face transplant in the world, according to transplant team leader Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, and the first involving the entire face, upper and lower jaw, teeth, tongue, under the eyes and chin. Rodriguez said the groundbreaking operation would not have been possible without Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic’s volunteer flights.

Norris, now 37, had been living as a recluse in his small southwestern Virginia town for the last 15 years, ever since the gun accident tore away much of his face. Although he underwent numerous life-saving and reconstructive surgeries, none allowed him to rejoin society. “I lived as a recluse, hiding behind a surgical mask,” Norris said. He shopped mostly at night when fewer people were around to stare and make well intended, but sometimes hurtful, comments.

Then, in 2007, Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore accepted Norris for radical face transplant surgery. However, there was a problem: Transportation. “Where Richard lives is very isolated,” said Steve Craven, chair of Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic, one of several all-volunteer Angel Flight organizations throughout the country.   “Driving repeatedly back and forth wasn’t practical.”

From 2007 until the actual operation in March of 2012, no fewer than 52 of Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic’s volunteer pilots flew to the Twin Country Regional Airport, about seven miles from rural Hillsville, took Norris to Baltimore for his medical appointments in Baltimore and returned him home. All told, they flew 78 round trips to help the man, all at no charge to him. Although Twin County Regional has no airline service, it welcomes some 9,000 general aviation (GA) flights a year, including many business aircraft flights. The alternative for businesses without their own aircraft is a three and a half to four-hour roundtrip over twisty mountain roads to the nearest airport with frequent airline service, Greensboro, NC. 

Norris is recovering from the 36-hour-long surgery more quickly than anticipated. Six days after the March 19 and 20 operation he was able to move his tongue and open and close his eyes. He also regained his sense of smell, a faculty that had been lost to him for 15 years. ”He’s actually looking in the mirror, shaving and brushing his teeth, which we never even expected,” said Rodriguez.

For Norris, the transformation has been miraculous. "I can now go out and not get the stares and have to hear comments that people would make. People used to stare at me because of my disfigurement. Now they can stare at me in amazement for the transformation I have taken. I am now able to walk past people and no one even gives me a second look.

“I can now start working on the new life given back to me,” he added.

Craven said, “That’s what Angel Flight does, helps needy people from rural areas get specialized medical care that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. It’s truly a privilege to help people in need.”

Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic is one of the largest Angel Flight operations in the U.S., and has some 650 volunteer pilots who own or rent airplanes ranging from four-place Cessna 172s to twin-engine turboprops.  Many of the aircraft are used by the volunteers in their businesses on a regular basis.