Connie Culp, recipient of first near-total face transplant in the U.S., dies at 57

WINTERSVILLE, Ohio — Connie Culp, the Ohio woman who made international headlines in 2008 when she received the first near-total face transplant in the U.S., has died. Culp was 57.

The Cleveland Clinic, where Culp underwent her history-making surgery, announced her death Friday morning.

“Connie was an incredibly brave, vibrant woman, and an inspiration to many,” Dr. Frank Papay, chair of the clinic’s Dermatology and Plastic Surgery Institute, said in a statement. “Her strength was evident in the fact that she had been the longest-living face transplant patient to date. She was a great pioneer and her decision to undergo a sometimes-daunting procedure is an enduring gift for all of humanity.”

The date and cause of Culp’s death were not released, but Culp’s daughter, Alicia Culp, indicated July 23 on social media that her mother was ill.

Culp was permanently disfigured in September 2004 when her common-law husband, Tom Culp, pulled a shotgun on her in their apartment above the OK Corral, a Hopedale restaurant and bar the couple owned. He shot her in the face from about 8 feet away, obliterating all but her upper eyelids, forehead, lower lip and chin.

Tom Culp then turned the shotgun on himself. Like his wife, he survived, but with much less serious injuries.

He was later convicted of aggravated attempted murder and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Connie Culp, then 41, was left almost completely blind. According to a 2010 profile of Culp by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the shotgun blast destroyed her right eye, her nose, her lower eyelids, her upper lip, palate and top teeth.

Culp underwent dozens of surgeries to repair her face but still had no nose. She could not smile or smell, could not eat solid food or drink from a cup, and she needed a tracheotomy tube in her throat to help her breathe, according to ABC News.

Remarkably, Culp initially said she not only forgave her husband for shooting her but that she planned to wait for him until he was released from prison. She later changed her mind, telling Oprah Winfrey in a 2009 appearance on her show that taking him back would not have set the right example for her daughter.

“I always will (love him),” Culp told Diane Sawyer that same year. “I mean, I have two kids (by) him. But you know what? I cannot be with him anymore.”

Watch Culp talk about her ordeal below.

For several years after the shooting, Culp dealt with the aftermath by teaching herself Braille and using other gadgets to help her move about her home. She also had to deal, however, with the looks and comments of strangers, particularly children, when they saw what was left of her face.

Her fraternal twin sister, Bonnie Oberlin, told the Plain Dealer in 2010 that Culp used humor to get through outings. At lunch together in early 2008, a few months before the transplant, Culp wore a prosthetic nose that began to fall off in the middle of the meal.

Without missing a beat, Culp removed it and tossed it into her purse, she said.

A few weeks later, at the same restaurant, Oberlin tried to grab her sister’s hand to help her out of the building.

“I can see pretty good today,” Culp responded, taking back her hand.

She then promptly ran face-first into the restaurant’s glass doors.

“It’s a good thing I didn’t have my nose on,” she quipped, according to Oberlin. “It would’ve smooshed into my face.”

“Nothing gets Connie down,” Oberlin told the newspaper. “Nothing. She won’t let that happen.”

Culp’s need for prosthetics changed on Dec. 10, 2008, when a 23-hour operation that was years in the making allowed surgeons to replace about 80% of Culp’s ruined face with that of an organ donor. According to the Plain Dealer, the transplant involved not only new skin and muscle, but also veins, arteries, teeth and bone.

The newspaper reported that Culp, who spent 12 days in intensive care, had to relearn how to walk due to her time in bed. She had to learn to speak again.

She also had to relearn the smells of foods that her brain had forgotten in the years following the shooting.

Initially, Culp had little control over the muscles in her new face. ABC News reported in 2010, two years after her surgery, that her facial nerves had regenerated, allowing her to speak more clearly. She could also smile again and eat the foods she craved.

The sight in her remaining eye also improved.

“I have to say, I just can’t get over how beautiful it is,” Sawyer told Culp about her new face.

“They did a good job, didn’t they?” Culp responded.

Culp spoke to Sawyer later that year when she met the family of her donor, Anna Kasper, for the first time. Kasper, 44, of Lakewood, had died of a heart attack two weeks before Christmas 2008. Her family described her as exceedingly generous in both life and death.

Kasper’s body was able to help 50 strangers after her death, Sawyer reported.

“It’s really hard when you lose somebody that you love, but you really can find so much comfort in knowing that they’re helping someone else,” Kasper’s daughter, Becky Kasper, said in an interview.

Anna Kasper’s husband, Ron Kasper, told the Plain Dealer the two women were a lot alike.

“Connie’s like Anna in a lot of ways,” he said, “as far as her personality, and how much she enjoys life, and how she smiles and is still able to have such a great attitude after everything she’s been through and she takes everything in stride. She’s a very special person. And Anna was, too.”

In the 2010 Plain Dealer feature on Culp’s recovery, the former Harley motorcycle-riding, small-town woman told a reporter not much had changed about her personality. Despite still having little vision, she still worked out, played volleyball and darts, and shot pool.

“People don’t think she’s blind,” Oberlin told the newspaper. “I can’t believe she’s got the spirit she’s got. I would’ve crawled up in a hole and died.”

Culp used a talking alarm clock to wake in the morning, as well as a talking pill case to tell her when to take the medications required to stave off rejection of her new face. A device helped her color coordinate her clothes each day.

With help from her daughter, Alicia Culp, and caretakers and nurses, she adjusted to her new way of life. There were moments of trouble.

“If I run into walls, I’m good at bouncing,” Culp told the Plain Dealer with a laugh.

Culp’s humor and unflappability were attributes mentioned by many who knew her, including the doctors and nurses who cared for her. The newspaper reported that Culp challenged her nurses to compete with her on the exercise bike and treadmill.

She bet a plastic surgery fellow she could beat him in a pushup contest and teased the nurses and other staff members when they bumped her wheelchair into walls or the elevator.

“All of us just wondered how in the world she could be so optimistic and positive,” nurse Patricia Lock told the Plain Dealer.

In the years after her successful transplant, Culp used her experience to become a public speaker, both on behalf of organ and tissue donation and on behalf of battered women. In her 2009 interview with ABC News, she told Sawyer that women need to believe their abusers when they make threats.

“If somebody points something at you and they say they’re going to do it, eventually they’re gonna do it,” Culp said. “If your husband threatens you in any way, it’s gonna get worse.”

She told the Plain Dealer that she wanted one legacy: to be remembered as someone who stood up for abused women.

“I’ve met probably 10 women that actually had a gun pointed at them,” Culp told the paper. “The only difference is the gun wasn’t loaded. I say, ‘The next time it might be. I never thought that he’d do that to me. And look where I am.’

“I’m just lucky that somebody was able to fix me.”

Culp may have been the first near-total face transplant recipient in the U.S., but she has not been the last. According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 40 face transplants had been performed worldwide as of August 2018.

Time reported that the first partial transplant took place in France in 2005, three years before Culp’s surgery.

Cleveland Clinic’s first total face transplant took place in 2017 when surgeons operated on Katie Stubblefield, who, like Culp, suffered severe facial trauma as the result of a gunshot wound as a teen. At 21, Stubblefield became the youngest person in the U.S. to receive a face transplant.

“Can you live without a face?” Papay said in 2014, following the clinic’s second near-total face transplant, which was performed on a man disfigured in a motorcycle crash. “Yes. But it’s very difficult, and not a good quality of life.

“Having a face to face the world is probably one of the more important functions we have as human beings communicating with each other.”