National Geographic's September Issue: The Story of A Face

Our report on Katie Stubblefield, the youngest full-face transplant recipient in American history. Wednesday, August 15, 2018

By Justin Quirk
Photographs By Maggie Steber
Before Katie Stubblefield had a face transplant, she posed for this portrait. It shows her severely injured face—but photographer Maggie Steber also wanted to capture “her inner beauty and her pride and determination.”

We’re very proud to unveil the latest issue of National Geographic, with a cover feature telling the story of the youngest full-face transplant recipient in American history. This story is difficult to look at. Yet we are asking you to go on the remarkable journey of how a young woman received a face transplant because it reveals something profound about our humanity.

Taking advantage of a sunny spring day, Katie and her parents, Robb and Alesia Stubblefield, indulge in a nap in a park near the Cleveland Clinic. With Katie in a wheelchair, the three explored the park, wandering amid blossoming trees and singing birds. The outing came after Katie had spent a month in the hospital. To reposition her eyes, she had surgery to implant what’s known as a distraction device. In the three years before her transplant, Katie was hospitalised more than a dozen times.

“‘The Story of a Face’ is about hope and resilience, identity, the power of a family’s love and devotion to their daughter, and the medical miracle that gives Katie Stubblefield a second chance at life,” said Susan Goldberg, Editorial Director of National Geographic Partners and Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic magazine.

“It is told with the unparalleled visual storytelling that National Geographic is known for and uniquely connects audiences to the deeply human story behind the science, thanks to the bravery of Katie and her family who gave us unfettered access to share their journey with the world. The result is an extraordinary look at a breakthrough scientific procedure that will make you question how you think about the relationship between outward appearance and our inner selves.”

Sixteen hours into a transplant operation at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, surgeons finish the intricate task of removing the face from an organ donor. Awed by the sight and by the gravity of their work, the team falls suddenly silent as staff members document the face in between its two lives. The surgeons would spend 15 more hours attaching the face to Katie Stubblefield.

This issue is also the latest in National Geographic’s series of collaborations with guest editors, each devoting their issue to a theme of their choosing. This latest edition of the magazine has been overseen by Katie Piper, the philanthropist, television presenter and former model who herself underwent pioneering surgery to restore her face and vision after she was attacked with acid.

Determined to help Katie live a life as normal and valuable as possible, Robb and Alesia put their own lives on hold for more than four years. Pushing through exhaustion, relying on their faith in God, they accompany their daughter to endless appointments and therapy sessions. They’re already looking into ways to improve Katie’s vision, including the possibility of eye transplants. They expect to remain in Cleveland near the clinic and Katie’s doctors for the near future.

“The Story of a Face,” is from the September 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine, on sale from 5th September.

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