After a gun accident took off half his face, Richard Lee Norris spent 15 years living as a recluse in Hillsville, Va. Horribly disfigured, he hid indoors. When he ventured out, it was behind a baseball cap and surgical mask. He didn't pursue a career and never married.
Now, seven months after undergoing the most extensive face transplant in history, 37-year-old Norris is finally coming out of hiding.
Thanks to a combination of potent medications and dogged determination, Norris is healing faster than anyone expected, according to his doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, Md., where his transplant was performed.
"We as doctors do the operation, but the rest is up to you as the patient," said Eduardo Rodriguez, a dentist and surgeon at UMMC. "You have to carry the ball." Norris, Rodriguez says, took the ball and ran with it.
By the time Norris was selected as a transplant candidate in 2005, he had already undergone more than a dozen operations attempting to give him functional use of his mouth. Despite the numerous surgeries, certain facial features - such as his lips, nose and the front of his tongue - were beyond repair.
"After several attempts at reconstruction, it became apparent it wasn't going to work," Norris, who declined to be interviewed in person, said in a written statement to The Post. "The face transplant was one of my very few options left."
The 36-hour operation was completed in March and involved more than 150 doctors, nurses and UMMC staff members.
"Everything from the scalp to the midline of my neck was replaced, including the jaw bones, teeth, part of my tongue, muscles, and nerves," said Norris, who has retained his eyesight through the gun accident and the subsequent surgeries.
The days immediately following the transplant were promising. Norris was taken off his postoperative ventilator, and within the first week he was able to shave his face and brush his teeth.
When Norris saw his new face in a mirror for the first time, he wrote, "the only thing I could do was hug Dr. Rodriguez."
Still, he spent the first two months following the surgery in the hospital. The goal at that time, Rodriguez said, was to reduce inflammation and stymie the risk of rejection through high doses of immunosuppressing drugs.
In May, Norris was discharged but instructed to remain in the Baltimore area, where he could meet with his transplant team as well as a psychologist, a social worker, and speech and physical therapists multiple times each week.
Finally, Norris was allowed to return home to Hillsville, in southwest Virginia, where he does his speech therapy "homework" and meets with his local physician. He returns to Baltimore once or twice a month for checkups with Rodriguez and other doctors.
"I have been doing very well regaining my speech back," Norris said. "Each day it improves a little more."
There was, however, one hiccup in the recovery process: the much-feared rejection.