Written by Zoe Engels, Contributing Writer and Editor
On July 27, 2019, Robert Chelsea became the first African American and oldest individual ever to receive a full face transplant. These days, when he looks in the mirror, Robert is still trying to come to terms with the man he sees—“I just see another person,” he said when we spoke via Zoom in October of 2022. Over the course of our conversation, I grew awestruck by his unbridled optimism and unwavering zest for life. When he spoke about his reflection, only then did a tinge of disappointment, almost imperceptible, seep into his tone. It is clear to me that he knows he has embarked on a life-long journey to reconcile the man he sees in the mirror with the man he is on the inside—the man he has always been. But it’s also clear that he sees this journey toward reconciliation as part of his new path and life mission: to be a passionate advocate for organ, eye, and tissue donation.
“I’m still getting used to how I feel about looking at myself,” he told me after I asked what the post-transplant adjustment process has been like for both him and his family members. “I’m getting more accustomed to seeing that person, but I had sixty years or so of what I know I look like—what I recognize—and so it’s still [a matter of] getting used to. … I suppose I will be more comfortable with it as the years go on,” he ends with the fresh note of optimism I respect and have quickly come to expect and search for in his answers, like a game of Where’s Waldo except Waldo is easily identifiable. In the nearly ten years since the accident that changed his life and set him on his transplant journey, his positivity hasn't subsided. It has only increased.
Robert Chelsea sharing his story for Educating Minorities About Transplants, Inc.
The accident occurred on August 5th, 2013, at approximately 10 p.m. on a Los Angeles freeway. His car had overheated, so he pulled onto the shoulder, parked, and dialed a friend for a helping hand. While on the phone with his friend, he saw a car, manned by a drunk driver, swerve toward the shoulder, cutting across several lanes before ramming straight into Robert’s vehicle. His car flipped through the air, landed a few seconds later, and blew up. Robert described it as being in a “long tunnel of fire.”
He was trying to get out as a man, Richard Robles, ran towards his burning car to help get him to safety in a heroic act of bravery and compassion. Richard could not grab Robert’s arm because it was melting but was able to use a seat belt to help maneuver him out. While moving away from the car, they checked to see if the driver was okay. He had been unscathed. (Robert and Richard remain good friends to this day.)
When the ambulance arrived, Robert was still conscious and was able to provide the EMTs with his name, yet, as he laid on the gurney to rest, he had no idea that he had been severely burned; he felt the heat but never experienced any pain. In that state, painlessly, he slipped into a coma and would not wake up until six months later in February of 2014.
While in a coma, Robert was “code blue” several times and was given a small chance of survival. His internal organs were not working well, he had become an amputee, and the tip of his tongue had burned off in the accident. But he beat the odds. After four months, he was transferred to a more long-term care facility, where he would later wake up.
“It took me about two weeks or so to realize that I had been in a coma,” he revealed, shrugging slightly. “Because so many people started coming around saying, ‘Oh yeah, you’re a miracle. You’ve been in a coma all this time, and we’re so happy you’re alive.’ … I never knew that I was in a coma because, as far as I was concerned, everything was going fine.”
Although family, friends, nurses and doctors tried to convey to Robert that he’d been severely burned—he knew he’d been burned but not the scope of it—he only came to understand the extent of his injury approximately eight months after the accident when he started to regain his mobility and first saw his face in the mirror.
“And then I realized, ‘Oh, this is what everybody has been making a big deal about,’” he said of the moment in which he met his new reflection and began to understand the reason behind all his visitors’ “sad faces.”
The primary reason why Robert found himself originally unaware of the extent of his injuries is because he never felt any pain from the time of the accident to when he awoke from his coma. That experience, particularly the painlessness, reinforced his spiritual and religious faith and inspired him to share his journey with others.
“Physically, a lot has taken place, but spiritually, [I have been] overwhelmed with a joy that’s irreplaceable,” he told me as he lifted his arms slightly as if to gesture to the vastness and beauty of the world around him. Something about the way he gestured and the tone of his voice, the calmness within it, made me want to look around, too, and take in the world anew.
As Robert underwent the post-accident recovery process, he began to adapt to the discomfort and embrace the comfort he found in his faith, resumed physical exercise, and started getting acclimated to drinking from a syringe and adjusting the manner in which he ate his food (as he’d been left nearly lipless as a result of the burns)— “It was alright,” he told me of the drinking and eating process.
While he was not personally concerned about aesthetics in his recovery and had come to terms with his new appearance, he noticed changes in social dynamics and how strangers perceived and interacted with him. In one instance, as he was sitting in the entranceway of a Los Angeles restaurant, a little boy whom Robert estimates was three or four years old, noticed Robert as he was examining his surroundings.
“He looked at me, and he jumped, and he said ‘ahuh,’” Robert made a startled noise as he told the story. “And he ran back to his dad, grabbed him and said, ‘Daddy, daddy, he looks like a zombie!’” Robert had raised the volume of his voice to mimic the child’s cries.
“Well, that is an example of how people react sometimes,” he added. “Sometimes they’ll open the door for me, or they’ll look at me and smile; you can tell when they’re looking and trying not to look. This was a wonderful experience for me because I now realize what other individuals who may be disfigured are going through.” He again ended on an optimistic note; the movement of his stories—from painlessness and pain and optimism and joy—is a cycle I should have been familiar with by this point in our conversation, but it still struck me as so unexpected that I could not help but be surprised every time.
Robert ultimately decided to have the full face transplant not for these aesthetic reasons but to be able to “live a normal life” and regain the ability to open and close his mouth, which he had lost.
When he began the years-long process of waiting for a transplant in 2016, he was asked to select from a chart of shades, labeled one through eighteen from lightest to darkest complexion. After waiting approximately one year with no luck, he adjusted the range he’d selected to extend from five to sixteen. But, when the call came in 2018 from Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, current Division Chief of Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery at Yale School of Medicine, Robert knew it wasn’t the right fit.
“Because the face was so light, in my opinion, it wasn’t worth having the surgery,” he explained as he began gesturing toward his face. “I’m light here and dark here and multi-colors as a result of the burns, so I only really needed the transplant from the bridge of my nose down, but my head would have been multi-colored. As a result of that, we decided to have a full face transplant, [so that I would] at least [be] all one complexion, [but] the first offer was just way too light.”
Robert opted to continue waiting, and he had no problem doing so—“I was already used to my face as a burn survivor,” he added.
When he received a second call from Dr. Pomahac that another face (one that was not as light as the first) had become available, Robert took the opportunity to begin a new chapter in his life, nearly six years after the accident. He was 68-years-old at the time.
Robert Chelsea pre-accident, post-accident, and post-transplant
Since his transplant, Robert has not only been reconciling the person he sees in the mirror with the person he knows himself, externally and internally, to be, but he has also been working toward one of his pre-transplant goals: to be able to kiss his daughter on the cheek once again. It’s a goal he has achieved, though not to the full extent he hopes for and continues to strive toward as he has yet to gain full control over his lips. He describes his lips as lacking a “suction” or “seal,” such that he still cannot close his lips around a glass, cup, or bottle to drink.
“You’ve probably held, say, a baby, a one-year-old baby, and you say to them ‘give me a kiss,’ and they’ll pucker their lips, [and] there’s no suction,” he explained of the first time he tried to kiss his daughter’s cheek after the transplant. “[Babies’] lips will just touch your cheek, and it’s just a little touch. That’s how mine are. I can hardly pucker, and to actually have some impression”—he tried to illustrate by striving to pucker his lips, though it was clear that he was not yet able to make that ‘o’ shape with his mouth—“it’s not there, so I’m not going to be a wild kisser from now on.” He chuckled, amused by his own, self-aware joke, and I joined along, too.
As he continues to make progress and works to regain control over his lips, he has also faced some challenges and roadblocks. Due to infections while his body adjusts to the transplant, he has found himself in and out of the hospital “a great deal.”
On New Years Eve of 2019, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was too weak to get to the telephone. It wasn’t until 7 a.m. on New Year’s Day of 2020 that he was finally able to muster up the strength to reach the phone and dial 911. That instance led to a 17-day hospital stay. Throughout 2020, he was hospitalized on eight separate occasions with various infections, including blood, septic, and urinary infections. The subsequent year was smoother with only a couple of hospitalizations, and he has since had COVID twice; in both instances, he was weak the first day and then remained in the hospital for a few days so that they could monitor him.
Nonetheless, even in the moments since waking up from the coma and since receiving the transplant in which he has experienced pain, Robert has felt “comforted within the physical discomfort.” He said he does not regret his transplant and would not make a different decision in retrospect as it helped set him on his new life path, with his expanded worldview, as an organ, eye, and tissue donation advocate.
Robert was a registered organ donor prior to his accident but wasn’t really familiar with the nuances of what that meant and entailed. His own experiences have shown him firsthand and inspired him to learn more about the importance of advocating for multicultural organ donation.
“I wouldn’t have this face if it weren’t for another African American family that offered their loved one’s face,” he told me.
Learn more about multicultural organ donation at sodanational.org/hbcu.
He emphasized the importance of a “universal approach” as well and encouraged people from all backgrounds to register as organ, eye, and tissue donors.
Robert recognizes that his experience is different from that of many other organ, eye, and tissue donation recipients as his face transplant was considered cosmetic to improve his quality of life, whereas many other transplants, such as kidney transplants, are life-saving and, as he put it, create “a legacy of providing life for another individual.” One deceased organ donor can save up to eight lives.
“I have another forehead,” he said as he began to point to different parts of his face. “I have another cheek, I have another nose, I have other lips.” He began to chuckle, “[My transplant] has its own behavior pattern. It itches. So much is going on internally that this is all an adjustment. It’s a little different than having a life-saving organ that now makes you feel ten years better.”
He encourages students to pursue their interests in science and research to help continue to advance medicine as he was the first African American face transplant recipient but sincerely hopes he’s not the last. There are many transplant technologies that students can both pioneer and advance in their fields of study, he said. Furthermore, Robert wants students to think about the importance of helping each other, both in their studies and beyond, and consider the people and world around them.
“When you begin to appreciate [people], you tend to want to give, share, help, and care for others, and kindness and caring for one another are the most essential parts of anything,” he added. “I have an old phrase that I use: kindness pays dividends that no man can measure.”
If Robert’s story inspired you to begin advocating for organ, eye, and tissue donation, visit sodanational.org/students to host a SODA event or start a SODA chapter in your community. You can also learn more about Robert and his speaking engagements at robertchelsea.org.