In a remarkable medical breakthrough, surgeons at NYU Langone Health have achieved the world’s first whole eye transplant. The recipient, Aaron James, a 46-year-old military veteran from Hot Spring Village, Arkansas, underwent this groundbreaking surgery following a severe electric shock accident.
James, who survived a potentially fatal electric shock in 2021 while working as a high-voltage lineman, suffered extensive injuries, including the loss of his left eye, nose, lips, and significant damage to his face and left arm. The transplant, which took place in May, was a complex 21-hour procedure involving over 140 surgeons, nurses, and healthcare professionals. It included a partial face transplant, a rare procedure with less than 50 instances worldwide since the first in 2005.
The donor provided both the face and the eye, with the eye remaining intact in its socket along with surrounding tissue and the optical nerve. Despite the challenges, such as connecting tiny blood vessels and reattaching the optic nerve, the surgery was successful. Surgeons also injected adult stem cells into James’ optic nerve to encourage new cell growth.
Five months post-surgery, the transplanted eye shows healthy blood flow to the retina, a critical sign of vitality. While James cannot see with the transplanted eye, the operation is still considered a success, crossing barriers previously thought insurmountable. Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, who led the surgery, emphasized the unprecedented nature of this transplant.
The eye transplant has not been rejected by James’ body, a significant achievement given the unique immune properties of the eye. Dr. Joseph Rizzo, a neuro-ophthalmology expert, noted that while restoring full vision remains beyond current capabilities, even partial nerve cell regrowth would be a groundbreaking accomplishment.
For James, the transplant has been life-changing. He can now appear in public without attracting undue attention and has regained some basic functions like tasting and eating solid food, which were lost due to his injuries. He expresses immense gratitude to the donor and their family for this transformative gift.
Dr. Rodriguez and his team will continue monitoring the transplanted eye, hopeful that this pioneering surgery might open new possibilities in medical science and offer hope to others.