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Face transplant recipient edges toward 'ordinary'

Published July 30, 2006

BEIJING - A Chinese farmer who received a partial face transplant after being mauled by a black bear has been discharged from the hospital and will go back to his rural mountain village, state media said Saturday.

Li Guoxing, 30, who underwent surgery in Xijing Hospital in the central Chinese city of Xian, thanked the doctors and nurses after being released Friday and said he was happy to go home, the Xinhua News Agency said.

"Before I accepted the surgery I could not eat, drink or smile like an ordinary person," he said at a news conference. "Now I am starting to act like an ordinary person. It feels great."

The state-run Beijing Youth Daily featured a photo of Li arriving in Kunming, capital of the southwestern province of Yunnan, and holding a bouquet of flowers as a group of smiling people welcomed him. His face appeared swollen and stitches were still visible.

"When he took a train to Xian for his operation, he had to wear a mask," the newspaper said. "Now he's full of confidence and greeted everyone at the exit door of the airport for 20 minutes."

The hospital, run by the People's Liberation Army, said it was only the second time the complex procedure had been attempted anywhere in the world.

Last year, doctors in Amiens, France, performed what is thought to be the world's first such procedure, transplanting lips, a chin and a nose onto a woman who had been attacked by a dog.

Two doctors were accompanying Li back to his home in a poor, mountainous village in Yunnan, Xinhua said.

He will spend a week with his wife and two children before going back to the hospital for more treatment because his hometown does not have adequate medical facilities, the news agency reported.

Li lost almost the whole right side of his face in 2003 after a black bear mauled him when he tried to chase it away from his cows with a stick.

On April 14, a team of 15 doctors and three nurses gave him a nose, upper lip, cheek and eyebrow from a brain-dead donor in a 15-hour procedure.

Since then, Li has been doing well and the swelling in his face has gone down, Guo Shuzhong, director of the hospital's plastic surgery department, was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

Li now has some facial hair and acne - signs that the transplant has been successful and the skin is alive, Guo said.

He likely will undergo more surgery in the coming weeks "to make the right part of his face, his lips and eyes seem more natural," Guo said.

Li, who speaks the dialect of his Lisu ethnic minority group, remained mostly quiet during a brief appearance for reporters in Kunming.

He wore a black polo shirt with an orange collar, and the grafted skin appeared a shade lighter than his natural tone.

Because the muscles of his face were still healing, he remained expressionless. Water dribbled down his chin as he drank from a bottle.

The Nature Conservancy, a U.S. environmental group, heard about Li's case while working on a program to ease farmers' anger over the growing numbers of black bears in Yunnan since laws protecting them were enacted in the late 1990s. The bears kill and eat valuable livestock and destroy crops, farmers say.

A Chinese representative of the group contacted Guo after hearing that doctors at Xijing Hospital successfully performed a partial face transplant on a rabbit.

Guo went to Li's home in March, and they decided to attempt the surgery if a donor could be found.

[Last modified July 30, 2006, 01:24:50]

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