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CCGA professor to study face transplant recipients' shift in perception of identity
Posted 10/13/2016 10:40AM


No one understands the psychological implications of undergoing a face transplantation surgery as well as the transplant recipients themselves.

But for the first time, Carla Bluhm, who has studied this topic for more than a decade, will be able to ask face transplant recipients directly how they were able to shift their perception of identity after receiving an entirely new face.

Bluhm, an associate professor at the College of Coastal Georgia, and fellow research psychologist Kesstan Blandin will soon embark on a project that they feel will revolutionize the psychological understanding of identity.

"The surgeons are thrilled with the level of function, but we're way more interested in the level of getting an understanding of how recipients make that transition into a brand new face," Bluhm said. "That brings up all these issues of identity."

Blandin suggested nearly a year ago that she and Bluhm collaborate on the study, and the two have since received approval from the Institutional Review Board at CCGA and are ready to begin interviewing face transplant recipients.

"We're going to give them questions, and they will answer about how they changed their identity," Bluhm said. "How did they think of themselves differently, what were their experiences like when they looked in the mirror initially, do they see themselves in their dreams, do they see their old face or their new face?"

A face transplant goes beyond a person's physical transformation, Bluhm said.

"Think of what these people are doing — they're losing their own faces, and they're gaining a face that has been hugely transformed," Bluhm said. "And then imagine, on top of that, you're asked to completely realign your identity."

Face transplantation, which Bluhm said is one of the most complex surgeries to exist, is also extremely rare. Only about 33 face transplant recipients are alive in the world, she said, and only about seven recipients live in the United States.

Bluhm began researching the psychological implications of face transplant surgery after the first recipient, Isabele Dinoire, underwent the surgery in 2005. Dinoire died in April.

"That was kind of a bad blow for everybody, but I think it made Kesstan and I start thinking again that we really do need to talk to these people," Bluhm said. "And I had always wanted to talk to the face transplant recipients. I had always been using their surgeons as vehicles, especially with Isabele, to communicate with."

Dinoire had her nose, lips and chin replaced after being mauled by her pet dog. Others having undergone the surgery after being shot in the face or attacked by a chimpanzee.

"These are brutal," Bluhm said. "(Face transplantation) really does, I think, highlight the brutality of having a human form — that a chimpanzee can tear your face off and your jaw, that a bear can with one swipe take your face off."

Blandin, who teaches at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in California, is the sister of Carmen Blandin Tarleton, who received a face transplant in 2013 after her estranged husband beat her with a baseball bat and burned her face and body with industrial lye in what Bluhm said has been called the worst case of domestic abuse ever seen.

"She was completely melted — all her features melted off," Bluhm said. "It was down her neck, it scarred her arms."

Bluhm said she and Blandin will be able to do a more in-depth study with the help of Blandin's sister.

"Carmen's friends with (other transplant recipients), so we're going to have really unprecedented access in doing the type of work that we want to do with them," Bluhm said.

They also hope to address in the study the experience of having a family member undergo face transplant surgery, which Blandin has gone through firsthand.

Bluhm said because Blandin's sister was a burn victim with repairs, her face was completely stationary and she lost the ability to move her mouth or eyes.

"Carmen said she cried for 18 months, but no one knew. And she thought everyone was ignoring her," Bluhm said. "She was too wounded and down-beaten to say 'Why doesn't anyone see that I'm crying?'"

One day, she finally asked why no one paid attention to her when she cried.

"And they said 'Carmen, we had no idea,'" Bluhm said.

A second component of the study will go slightly beyond the identity of face transplant recipients. Bluhm and Blandin also hope to explore the evolving perception of identity across the human race.

Bluhm said they're not alone in studying how technological advances are changing human identities.

From social media to the invention of self-driving cars, Bluhm said the world is on the cusp of an entirely different way of thinking about self, but is without the vocabulary to articulate the change.

"The internet gives you multiple ways to have an identity — through an avatar, through an email account, through a Facebook feed," Bluhm said. "There's an endless array of quizzes on Facebook people are taking. Everybody's trying to figure out some basic question – 'Who am I?'"

Through the interviews, she said they hope to identify the unknown vocabulary of taking on a transformed identity, by talking with people who have undergone the experience as no one else has.

"The face transplant recipients, they know. They know how to articulate what we're trying to articulate," Bluhm said. "They've taken on technology, they've taken on innovation, they've taken on identity. And we need to speak with them in a way that lets them find the new language."

Photo by Bobby Haven of The News

CCGA professor Carla Bluhm will study the psychology of getting a face transplant along with fellow researcher Kesstan Blandin.

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