Just read an article in the latest NEW YORKER about the first full face transplant in the US in 2010 after only a few partial transplants had been done in France and elsewhere. An amazing story about Dallas Wiens whose photos went around the world a couple of years ago. There is nothing German about the story. The head surgeon at the Brigham grew up in the Czech Republic, French surgeons did ground breaking work in transplantation of hands and face, no German hospital was mentioned, no German surgeon – but when they talked about the first hand transplant (in 1998 in France, first kidney transplant in 1954) and the dramatic twists and turns it involved, I thought of ORLACS HÄNDE, a silent masterpiece from 1924 by Robert Wiene that foreshadows all the psychological problems of a hand transplantation. Conrad Veidt, in one of his memorable performances, portrays Orlac, the pianist, who loses his hands in a train accident and got new ones from a murderer that turned Orlac into an evil person. So sobering to hear today’s surgeons say: There is the heart, liver, brain-and the face which is skin, tissue, muscle, and blood. And those who argued that the recipients would suffer an identity crisis were wrong. Our obsession with identity goes back a long way. Before The Hands of Orlac there was Freud and long before him the Brothers Grimm. One of their fairy tales tells about three Army Surgeons (Die drei Feldscherer) who not only cut off their own heart, eyes and arms and paste them back together with a miracle ointment, but have no problem transplanting organs of pigs and cats and the hands from a thief. The heart of the pig made the surgeon want to roll in the mud, with the cat’s eyes the second one could only see at night, and the hands of the thief turned the third one into a thief, of course.
Identity crisis after transplants today do not seem to be the biggest problem. Face-transplant recipients appear to adapt quickly, because they do not see their face constantly, says Dubernard, one of the experts. Hand transplants are much more psychologically straining, especially single hand transplants. New hands can not be easily ignored, and, unlike a double transplant, a single one makes you compare constantly. Dubernard now refuses to do single hand transplants. He would have saved Orlac.
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