Face transplant man Richard Norris becomes GQ cover star

Richard Norris before and after the transplant surgery. Photo: AP
Richard Norris before and after the transplant surgery. Photo: AP
Richard Norris on the cover of US GQ magazine.Photo: GQ/Dan Winters

Richard Norris on the cover of US GQ magazine.Photo: GQ/Dan Winters

London: Think of GQ magazine and you think interviews and photo shoots with glamorous celebrities. From Hollywood eye candy such as a swimsuited Jessica Alba to a brooding James Franco or Michael Fassbender, they are invariably cut from the same superficial A-list cloth.

But the star of its latest American issue marks a radical departure for the magazine, and provides one of the most extraordinary and life-affirming stories in its history.

In 1997, Richard Lee Norris, then aged 22, arrived home drunk and got into an argument with his mother. In the heat of the moment, he grabbed a shotgun, pointed it at his own face and told his mother he was going to shoot himself. The gun went off accidentally, shattering the lower half of Mr Norris's face. Miraculously, he survived, but lost his nose, jaw, teeth and most of his tongue. As he told GQ, there was flesh, bone and blood on all four walls of his bedroom.

Richard Norris before the shooting. Photo: AFP

Richard Norris before the shooting. Photo: AFP

Mr Norris spent the next decade living as a recluse in Hillsville, Virginia, only leaving home to go shopping at night. He underwent dozens of operations to repair his face, but conventional surgery could only redress a small proportion of the damage.

"When I was disfigured, just walking the sidewalk, I was surprised that more people didn't walk into telephone poles or break their necks to stare at me," he told the magazine.

"Now," he continued, "there's no one paying attention. Unless they know me personally, they don't know I am a face transplant patient. That right there is the goal we had."

In 2012, Mr Norris underwent the most extensive face-transplant operation ever performed, a 36-hour procedure involving 150 doctors and nurses at the University of Maryland Medical Centre, which carried only a 50 per cent chance of survival. The transplant included tissue from the neck to the scalp, as well as the upper and lower jaw, teeth and a section of the tongue.

The donor was a 21-year old man from Maryland, Joshua Aversano, who was killed after being knocked down by a van while crossing the road. Mr Norris is in regular contact with Mr Aversano's family.

The operation came just seven years after the first successful partial face transplant was carried out on Isabelle Dinoire, from France, who lost her nose, lips and chin after being attacked by her pet labrador. Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Centre believe the procedure carried out on Mr Norris could have far-reaching consequences for the many others who have suffered facial disfigurement, including soldiers injured in conflict.

Two years after the procedure took place, Mr Norris is recovering well, although he will have to take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of his life, and there is a risk that his body could reject the new face at any time. "Every day," he said, "I wake up with that fear: Is this the day? The day I'm going to go into a state of rejection that is going to be so bad that the doctors can't change it?"

But for now he is more than happy to show the world his face, and to be the pioneer of a treatment that could change the lives of many others. Above all, he is happy to have something approaching a normal life again.

"When I look in the mirror," he told GQ, "I see Richard Norris."

Telegraph, London via SMH