‘It was the most spiritual experience’: Gatineau man is recipient of first face transplant in Canada

For Dr. Daniel Borsuk it all came down to that moment. 

“It was the most spiritual experience for everyone who was there. When it finally happened, when he finally looked in the mirror it hit home.  Everyone in the room, the security guards, we were all crying.”

Dr. Borsuk a well-known Canadian plastic surgeon has now found his place on the world stage.  Heading up a team of more than a hundred doctors, surgeons, nurses and medical professionals at Montreal’s Maissonneuve-Rosemont Hospital, to perform Canada’s first ever face transplant.

 “It’s a surreal experience just to see how everyone got together to give this result.”

The long journey had a tragic start in 2011.  That’s when Gatineau man Maurice Desjardins, now 64, suffered a devastating gunshot wound to his face.  The bullet, from a hunting rifle, destroyed Desjardins’ upper jaw, lower jaw, nose and lips. He lost his ability to speak properly and his ability to eat and drink, “and more importantly,” Dr. Borsuk says, “he lost his ability to walk in public without the looks of others.”

Dr. Borsuk starting treating Desjardins five-years ago, working on a precise and careful plan to one day transform Desjardins life.

“He wanted to breathe properly and speak properly.  He wanted a nose, lips, jaws and teeth,” Dr. Borsuk told a news conference on Wednesday, “if he’s going to be the first in the country he’s got to be the perfect patient.”

So the medical team spent two years carefully evaluating Desjardins.  Psychiatric and medical tests and treatments to ensure he could physically and mentally handle the life changing surgery.

And then one day last May, Dr. Borsuk got the call; a man on life support had all the necessary traits to be a donor.

“A perfect colour match, not almost, a perfect hair match and a perfect match of the bones of the face.”

The team assembled.  In all there were nine surgeons, six anesthesiologists and hundreds of medical staff together to perform the Canadian first surgery.  There were even security agents guarding Desjardins to protect him from unwanted eyes. 

The surgery would last a grueling 30 hours as the team of surgeons reconnected bones, arteries, veins, nerves, skin and muscle. 

Then came the moment Maurice Desjardins had been waiting for, to look in the mirror and see himself for the first time.

“As he looks in the mirror for the first time,” Dr. Borsuk recalls, “it’s like a child looking in the mirror for the first time, touching their nose, their face, it’s disbelief, like ‘I can’t believe this is possible’.”

Four months later, Dr. Borsuk says Desjardins is recovering better than expected, “he’s learning to eat again, he’s learning to speak, he’s learning to smile, already at four-months he’s doing better than the average face transplant (recipient).”

While Dr. Borsuk and his team performed the miracle, he says it’s the anonymous donor and his family who are the real heroes, “it’s the greatest gift you can give in your life to help someone else live a more normal and a longer life.”

Desjardins journey ahead will be long, doctors monitoring him for symptoms of transplant rejection.  Dr. Borsuk says already though, Desjardins not only has a new lease on life, but a new sense of acceptance, “already he’s leading more of a normal life.  He’s able to walk around, nobody looks at him. They used to always stare at him, now he’s just another face in the crowd.”