Barb Berggoetz | IndyStar
Speedway man disfigured by electric shock awaits word from a Boston hospital that a face-transplant match has been found
When Mitch Hunter's cell phone rings, he immediately checks the area code. If it's 617, he knows it could be the call that will change his life -- and his face -- forever.
Hunter, who suffered a face-disfiguring electric shock in 2001, has been approved for a rare facial transplant procedure. A couple of weeks ago, he was placed on the New England Organ Bank list at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Now he must wait for the call -- the one from his plastic surgeon telling him a donor match has been found.
"It's quite unpredictable when it could happen -- a few weeks, a few months or a year," said Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, the director of plastic surgery transplantation at the hospital. "I'm fairly optimistic that we will be able to find a donor within the next few coming months."
The waiting, Hunter said, "does cause some anxiety." Still, he's more than willing to deal with that -- and the risks of the procedure -- for the chance he might regain some normalcy and leave behind the strangers' stares and questions he's lived with for nearly 10 years.
That hope only increased when the 30-year-old Speedway man visited the Boston hospital in October.
"One surgeon said, 'We can guarantee that you'll look 80 percent like you did before, but we'll shoot for 100 percent,' " Hunter recalled. "I'm like -- right on."
But it wasn't until Pomahac, who will perform the procedure with a team of doctors, called Hunter that he knew for sure he would even have a chance at the transplant.
"I was relieved and excited, and like, 'Oh, thank you,' " Hunter said. A week later, he received a 1 1/2-page letter confirming he was on the list.
The journey to this pivotal point has been a long and grueling one.
In 2001, he helped save a friend thrown from a car onto a live wire. But in doing so, a jolt of 10,000 volts of electricity traveled up his foot, through his body and exited his right hand and face.
Since then, Hunter has endured 47 surgeries on his face and 10 on his right hand.
But it has steeled him for what likely will be a 15- to 24-hour surgery, followed by three months to a year of recovery.
"I'm not scared about the operation," Hunter said.
For many reasons, he is well-suited for the transplant.
"I think he has significant facial deformity that we can substantially improve," Pomahac said. "He has a great personality and attitude toward the transplant and the right motivation. Because of those reasons and his level of understanding and social support, we thought he was a great candidate."
Doctors told him, Hunter said, it helps that his blood type, A positive, isn't rare. It's also good that his body hasn't built up antibodies during previous operations that would make rejection more likely.
Another man is on the list waiting for a transplant, but the two aren't competing for the same donors because each donor match requires different characteristics.
Hunter's donor, Pomahac explained, has to be male, have similar skin color, be within 15 to 20 years of his age and have matching tissue characteristics.
Hunter was 21 when he was injured in North Carolina, where he had recently been discharged after two years in the Army at Fort Bragg.
He lost the skin on his face and eyelids, two fingers and his left leg below the knee. Until mid-2005, he was in and out of hospitals, primarily in Winston-Salem, N.C., undergoing skin grafts. He has a prosthetic leg below the knee and a prosthetic nose.
After returning to Speedway, where he grew up, in 2005, he slowly got his life back on track and stopped sequestering himself at home. Still, when he went out in public, the stares and questions bothered him.
"He's waited for so long," said Billy Ellis, Indianapolis, who grew up with Hunter. "To have little kids look at him and call him the 'boogeyman' or monster -- I can't imagine what that feels like. Anywhere we go, it's just the constant stares."
When Hunter heard about the pioneering facial transplant surgery, first done in 2005 in France, he began investigating.
Last fall, he twice visited Brigham and Women's Hospital, which performed the second facial transplant procedure in the U.S. in 2009. Eleven have been done in other countries. Hunter also went to the Cleveland Clinic, where the first U.S. facial transplant was done in 2008.
He went through medical and psychological tests at both hospitals but hasn't heard back from Cleveland. He decided to have the operation at Brigham and Women's Hospital, where he was impressed with its doctors, staff and facilities.
"I liked Dr. Pomahac a lot, and I just felt more at home there," Hunter said. "It's also a beautiful city."
An added bonus? "I love Maine lobster."
As instructed in his letter from the hospital, he has given power-of-attorney to his stepmother, in case something happens. He also has to receive hepatitis A and B vaccinations, not smoke (which he had done occasionally) and pack a suitcase.
"It's not packed yet, but it will be soon," Hunter said. He'll pack light -- a couple of pairs of jeans, T-shirts, underwear, socks and a new toothbrush.
When a donor is found, Pomahac said, the operations need to be done within about 24 hours. The process could be completed within 12 to 30 hours, depending on other organs the donor is providing and which operation is performed first.
Hunter has given thought to what it means for him to find a donor: Another man has to die. And that bothers him.
That's why he already asked his doctors if he could meet the donor's family. That decision, though, is left up to the donor's family members. They have to sign a separate consent for skin transplantation, besides organ donor consent.
"I think he's really excited and really scared, but in another way really sad," said Ellis, who has helped organize fund-raisers for Hunter. "He doesn't want to be that person to wait for someone to pass away, so he can have the transplant."
While he waits, he's taking care of his 9-month-old son, Clayton. He had intended to start college last fall. But because he may have to leave suddenly, he hopes to take an online computer science class.
Hunter, who receives disability income, had worked part time in a Plainfield warehouse but was let go recently.
For now, all he can do is wait -- and keep his cell phone on.
"The phone call is going to happen someday," Hunter said. "I try not to think about it too much because the anticipation causes anxiety. It's always in the back of my mind, but I still have to raise my son and live life."