Mark's Reviews > The match : complete strangers, a miracle face transplant, two lives transformed

The match  by Susan Whitman Helfgot
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's review
Sep 04, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: memoir, science
Read from September 04 to 17, 2010

I may be biased on this book, since this subject is of great interest to me right now, but this is a well-done narrative of the nation's second face transplant, which mixes in vivid descriptions of the upbringing and present day lives of both the donor, Joseph Helfgot, and the recipient, Vietnam Vet Jim Maki.

Maki fell onto the electrifed third rail of train tracks near Boston, burning off most of the middle of his face. I've seen photographs of what he looked like before the surgery, and it's not hard to believe the book's assertion that he stayed indoors most of the time afterward because of the horrified reactions he often got when he went out in public.

The donor, Joseph Helfgot, was a hyperactive research guru whose audience measurements were used by Hollywood movie producers. He had a bad heart, and had gone to Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston for a heart transplant. He received it, but died on the operating table. That is when his wife, Susan, the co-author of the book, agreed to donate his face. She went on to meet Maki in person, so she also knows up close how much his appearance may resemble that of her late husband.

The book is done in the present tense you-are-there style, so readers have to suspend their disbelief to accept the descriptions of what people were thinking at given moment, exactly what they said or even what the weather might have been.

You learn enough about the medical aspects of face transplants to give you a good idea of how the procedure is done, but this is ultimately more a book about the lives of the donor family and the recipient and his family than a medical procedural.

Well worth the read, particularly if you are interested in this field. Also, I can say without hesitation that there is a strong ethical justification for doing transplants on people like Jim Maki or Connie Culp, who received the first face transplant in the U.S. at the Cleveland Clinic. Their faces were so damaged (Connie's by a shotgun blast from her husband) and they lack such basic functions (eating, sight, etc.) that getting a new face is as much about restoring normal activities as it is about appearance.

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