When I heard about that initial face transplant in France, I began imagining a world where this surgery had become very acceptable, where the well to do could get a new face every 5 to 10 years. Where faces were cloned in a laboratory or imported from poor third world countries. Where at a cocktail party, you overheard, "Love the new face, dear."
I was especially interested because I myself am disfigured. The left side of my face bulges and is streaked with a purple congenital venous malformation. My appearance is further alop as the result of heavy radiation therapy, that fifty years ago, seemed like a miracle cure.
I have found my face to be a gift. My shadow side is on the outside where I have been forced to deal with it. I have been forced to find my inner beauty. As are we all.
My wife Marlena and I do a middle school presentation entitled "Love at Second Sight." We tell stories from our lives about appearance and acceptability, which is what middle school is all about. The best part is the Q&A, when questions range from "Does your face hurt?" to the one that gets asked at about every fourth school: "If there was a miracle operation that could change your face to normal, would you have it?"
The first time I was asked that, my answer was inappropriately glib: "Sure I would, if I could look like Britney Spears." When their mouths dropped open, I continued, "Well, I mean the younger Britney."
But it made me think, and a few minutes later I tried to answer with more heart and authenticity. I said that I had never thought I had that option. I have never grieved the loss of a normal face. And what would I look like, anyway? I could never give up what I have learned, but maybe, if I could have a six-month trial period with a so-called normal face, I would try it out just to see what it is like.
That was all imaginary, but now the idea of a "miracle operation" is a reality. The Cleveland Clinic just did the first facial transplant in the United States.
I have seen the pre-op photo of the French patient and have no doubt that I would have made the same choice as she did. Clearly this work is needed and is a great surgical advance.
I perform and speak around the English-speaking world and after my appearances, people at times have confided in me that they have had cosmetic surgery. At first I thought I was being asked to offer absolution. Now I've come to a place of better understanding. There are a lot worse ways to spend money in ego-bolstering efforts. A nose job is less expensive than an SUV and has a much smaller carbon footprint.
I think that the point is still that we have to find our beauty inside ourselves. If that nip and tuck resonates in the soul, well and good. If it becomes an addiction/obsession, that is a whole other story.
My only complaint about this brand new world of faces is that all the media reports about the new face transplant only quote the opinions of surgeons and ethicists. That is just not enough.
I don't really know what an ethicist is, exactly. What are their qualifications? Is it like being an esthetician? Can anyone be an ethicist? How much money do they make? And on what basis do they proffer their judgments?
And surgeons, as wonderful as they are, are notorious for seeing all human problems as having incision sites.
Here's an unusual idea: why not talk to the people who actually have a facial difference? Why not call Matt Joffe from the Moebius Syndrome Foundation? The Cleft Palate Foundation? About Face International? AmeriFace? We are the ones who know what it is like to live with facial disfigurement. Ask us.
And I have learned to respond to that question from the kids with, "Well, what do you think? Should I should have an operation?" They roar in unison, "No!"