A face transplant patient who lost most of his features to a gun blast has become the cover star of a men’s magazine.
Richard Lee Norris lost most of his upper and lower jaw as well as his lips, teeth and tongue in an accident in 1997.
Now 39, Norris claimed to have lived much of his life following the incident as a recluse with his parents on a “foggy mountaintop” in rural Virginia with his parents.
Richard Norris had a face transplant in March 2012
He had transplant surgery in March 2012, at the Maryland Medical Centre in Baltimore, receiving the face of a recently deceased 21-year-old man named Josh during a marathon 36-hour operation led by surgeon Eduardo Rodriguez.
Five other people are living with organs from Josh.
GQ writer Jeanne Marie Laskas met Norris for its August US cover feature.
Laskas notes Norris trembles and drools constantly, but writes: “His new face is a marvel nonetheless. It’s a new face. Wide and open, the cheekbones of an Irishman and the wrinkle-free complexion of a college kid. It’s difficult to reconcile the youthful face with the body of a man nearly 40.”
Norris before his transplant
Norris, who will spend the rest of his life on a cocktail of immunosuppressant drugs appears to be a man of few words.
But during a car ride with Laskas he does volunteer: “Sometimes God will put you on your back to make you look up. Sometimes you need that nudge.
“It helps you understand… I’m not going to say the afterlife, but what you do here on earth and what you leave here on earth – it’s two totally different things.”
“A drop of hope can create an ocean. But a bucket of faith can create an entire world.”
Norris 114 days after the procedure
During the same car ride Laskas witnesses Norris inject himself with Wild Turkey (“for my throat”) and sees him slump into an alarming faint, causing her to momentarily fear he has died.
As she realises he is still breathing, she notes: “This didn’t use to be his mouth or his nose. He can smell with that nose. He can chew food with a dead man’s jaw and teeth. There is no denying how fantastic that is.”
Norris had previously talked of his life as a recluse, claiming to have spent the 15 years of his disfigurement “hiding behind a surgical mask and doing most of my shopping at night when less people were around.”
From left to right: Norris before the accident, before the transplant and in the weeks after surgery
But Laskas learns he was actually cohabiting with a girlfriend for two years after the accident and working on a race track.
She asks: “You had a job? And a girlfriend? And an apartment? You were living a whole life?”
To which Norris replies: “Yeah.”
Online comments left by someone claiming to be Norris's sister are less than complementary towards Laskas's account of her time with him. Jetlagg101 writes:
"You have no idea who my brother is or what he and my family went through and are still living with... your facts are wrong... not all of them but some... what he is doing and how he is living now is not up for debate... he's ALIVE!
"Mrs Laskas I think you need to go through journalism school again. Seems you lack some skills in reporting and human decency. I haven't commented on any article written about my brother but this one has pissed me off."
Norris has a new girlfriend now, a doting young woman named Melanie, who has introduced him to her children and her mother and promises: "I'll keep you safe."
In spite of debate or claimed discrepancies in Norris's story and GQ's feature, it is hard to deny his journey has been anything short of miraculous.