Facing It

I was watching an old movie on TV a couple of nights ago. A gangster was being pursued by the cops—aren’t they always? So he went to a plastic surgeon and got his face changed. They do it all the time in the movies.
And it wasn’t a mere face-lift. After all, one false surgical move—or twelve— and the gangster could have gone from looking like a burly guy to Melanie Griffith.

So the doctor did a complete face alteration on the thug. When finished, the gangster didn’t just have a different face—but a different posture, gait, voice and religious affiliation. He was also about six inches taller. I guess the movie director hoped the audience wouldn’t notice—or would assume the guy had just been slouching previously.

Up until recent years, that face-changing stuff has been just movie fantasy. In fact, one of the dumbest films in the last several years was called Face/Off.” In that one, federal agent John Travolta lets his bosses’ graft a criminal’s face onto his own, so that he can trick the bad guy’s brother into giving him key information. Logical, right?

(My wife says that if she was in charge, she would never let anyone mess up federal agent John Travolta’s face. Federal agent Jabba the Hut, maybe.)

In real life, there are non-surgical ways to change your face. It’s true. Anyone who has attended a class reunion has seen this method in action.

The guy who was once the neatly chiseled star quarterback in high school, shows up with a face so transformed—round, chubby and ruddy—that he is beyond recognition.

Meanwhile, the mousey, book-wormish, honors student female arrives at the class reunion looking like a Victoria’s Secret model.

What happened to those people? And why does everyone in your high school class look so much older than you? They do, don’t they? Gravity has something to do with it, but otherwise no scientist can explain it.

About ten years ago, what used to be the stuff of old gangster movies and the like became reality. Actual face transplants started being performed not only in this country, but Turkey, Poland, Spain, the U.K. and elsewhere. And it’s not just altering a nose, or lifting an eye-lid, mind you—but switching out an entire face: The Supraorbital notch, the Zygomatic arch, the Glabella, the Philtrum—even the Mentolabial sulcus. The works.

One doctor says, “It’s like completely reupholstering a couch. “ Well, yea—if a couch had eyebrows, lips and a nose. (And if a couch did have a nose, you’d want to be careful where you sat.)
For burn and accident victims, this kind of surgery is nothing short of miraculous—even though there are people who have ethical problems with it. Maybe it’s because beyond reconstruction, there is another way that faces can be replaced—and it can be a bit spooky.

So some readers may want to turn their heads away from this column at this time.

I’ll give you one more sentence to do so.

OK. If you are still with me at this point, here it comes: The surgeons sometimes transplant the face of a CORPSE to a living person! Creepy, eh?
Could it be leading to a day when people’s organ donor cards read: “Eyes, heart, liver, kidneys— and FACE?“
Will people begin changing their wills to add: “And to my nephew Willy, I leave my face?”
At this point, doctors insist that the procedure is only available for patients with the most severe facial disfigurements—and not as a cosmetic vanity thing.
Well, maybe—but still I wonder if someday I could be walking down the street—and come “face-to-face” with a guy I thought had died two years ago.
“Tom! I thought you were dead!”
“I’m not Tom. I’m Dave. I just have Tom’s face now.”
“Oh, OK. Well, have a nice day.”
“You too. Oh, by the way…”
“You might want to look into getting yours replaced.”
“Got a suggestion?”
“Triple-Crown winner, Pharoah?”
“Thanks. I’ll look into it.”