New Book Chronicles Historic Face Transplant
Donor's Widow Tells Story Of Procedure
Source: WCVB TV ABC Boston
BOSTON -- When the second face transplant in the United States was performed in Boston, it made headlines. Now, it is the subject of an emotional new book penned by the donor's wife.
In "The Match," Susan Whitman Helfgot, who donated her husband's face for the transplant, weaves together the lives of complete strangers.
Whitman Helfgot said the book is not about her.
"It's Joseph Helfgot's story. It's Bo Pomohac's story. It's Jim Maki's story. I'm in the story, but it's not my story," she said.
Whitman Helfgot said she found it very compelling and provocative that all three of these men were moving along in life, not knowing one another, and yet all of a sudden one day, they all came together.
Whitman Helfgot was married to Joseph for 30 years.
For 15 of those years, he needed a heart transplant. Helfgot finally got his new heart last summer, but died during surgery.
Whitman Helfgot made the decision to donate his organs, including his face. That went to Maki who had lost his face when he fell onto a third rail years ago.
"I realized very early on that Jim was 9-months younger than my husband, which made them exact contemporaries," Whitman Helfgot said.
That made it easier to put the book together, telling the story through events of the two men at the same points in their lives.
Whitman Helfgot said Maki is intelligent, funny, interesting and complex.
"He has a great story. His family has a great story," she said.
Her husband's parents were Holocaust survivors on the Lower East Side of New York.
"His rags to riches in Hollywood, is a story," Whitman Helfgot said.
Dr. Bo Pomohac, the surgeon who performed the procedure, came to America with nothing and ended up doing the first face transplant in New England.
All of it was captured on camera by coincidence. ABC's "Boston Med" show had been following Helfgot's wait for a new heart, which evolved into a history-making event.
Whitman said there's a connect between her and Maki because of what's occurred.
"It doesn't feel like I'm meeting someone I've never met before," she said.
Once Whitman and Maki went public, publishing houses soon began calling. The grieving widow began to keep a diary and those became chapters of her book.
"I just got up every morning at 5:30 a.m., went into the kitchen, sat sown and started banging away. And about every three days, I'd have a chapter," she said. "I can't describe it. It was this out of body experience."
Some of those early pages ended up in the hands of best-selling autobiographer Bill Novak, who encouraged Whitman Helfgot to keep writing.
Whitman Helfgot also worked closely with Maki, making sure his story was told fairly and accurately.
"The one blessing is that Susan is such a good writer. She's making this easy on me," Maki said.
"You turn on the TV and you see a face transplant, and you think you know everything about it. And you know nothing about it," Whitman Helfgot said.
Whitman Helfgot said it was important to her to get the story out that organ donation, including face transplants, are not possible without people signing up to be donors.
"It's not the easiest thing to say yes to, but you got to do it. You have to do it," she said.
Proceeds from the book are going to the Joseph Helfgot Foundation.
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