That's the only word to describe it. A 22-hour procedure, whereby eight surgeons essentially transplanted a full face onto a patient.
Put another way, it was "the largest and most complex face transplant in the world," announced the Cleveland Clinic, certainly one of the nation's best hospitals.
And working alongside a multi-disciplinary team of doctors and surgeons at Cleveland Clinic was Philadelphia born and educated Chad Gordon, D.O., a fellow in the department of plastic surgery at Cleveland Clinic.
The operation took place during Chanukah and Christmas. Gordon, 33, considers the procedure a "Chanukah miracle." The patient, who is not Jewish, told the doctor that "the only thing she wanted for Christmas was 'a face.' " Both got their wish.
The woman, who desires to remain anonymous, had suffered severe facial trauma. She had no nose and no palate after her injury, and was unable to eat or breathe without a tracheotomy; she also was missing bone support. The operation was the only way for her to regain most of her functions.
In essence, she had no face in a world where "our faces are more than visages to be adorned or veiled. They are essential to our communications with the world," noted Maria Siemionow, M.D., Ph.D., who headed the team of surgeons.
"Patients with severe facial trauma are often called 'monsters,' and are shunned from society," pointed out Gordon. "Many become recluses."
When the Cleveland surgeons transplanted 80 percent of the woman's face — all but upper eyelids, forehead, lower lip and chin — it was a huge medical breakthrough, too, for the former Philadelphia plastic surgeon.
Miracle of Miracles
"It's opening the door to thousands of people around the world who, while waiting for such a procedure, say their life is over. They do not lead normal lives."
Gordon likes to thank his grandparents Edward and Charna Gordon of Elkins Park for getting him to this point, since they were the ones who encouraged him to become a doctor. They "kvelled," he said, when he actually took the first steps to becoming a surgeon.
Not only were his Philadelphia-area grandparents instrumental in his career, but it was also the Philadelphia metro area that, for most of his life, gave him the necessary education to eventually move to the Cleveland Clinic last year.
Born at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, Gordon was a student at McKinley Elementary School in Elkins Park. He celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Beth Sholom Congregation, also in Elkins Park, and was graduated from Abington High School.
However, it was at George Washington University where Gordon, the son of Paula Hartman and Jeffrey Gordon of Philadelphia, studied fine arts, and where he began to combine art and medicine for his eventual career as a plastic surgeon. After earning his undergraduate degree, he spent a year as a medical illustrator before entering Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
When he was a fourth-year medical student at PCOM, Gordon spent five months at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital studying composite tissue allotransplantation, including face and hand transplantation. During that stint at Harvard, he finalized his decision to be a plastic surgeon.
While commuting from Center City to Cooper University Hospital/Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Camden, N.J., for six years, he met his wife-to-be, Abbey, daughter of Kenneth and Gayle Felzer of Philadelphia. The Gordons have a 2-year-old son, Austin.
Gordon has concentrated on composite tissue allotransplantation and also served as co-editor for the first major textbook in this specialized field, Transplantation of Composite Tissue Allografts.
Since then, he has presented his work nationally, winning a variety of prestigious awards.
He chose Cleveland Clinic because it was the only hospital in the country to have a protocol in place to perform a facial transplant, said Gordon.
This period of doing plastic surgery, which he calls "an amazing thing to help people," and which culminated in the nation's first near-total face transplant, has been the "most exciting time of my life."
A note to Cleveland Clinic and the surgery team from the patient's sibling after the December procedure explains the joy:
"She [my sister] has another chance to live a normal life. Our family cannot thank you enough … ."