Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ryan Pyle Blog: Face Transplant Recipient Confirmed Dead


I wanted to make you aware of some breaking news in China. It appears that Li Guoxing, the first recipient of a face transplant surgery in China as been confirmed dead. Li Guoxing received a face transplant surgery in 2006 from surgeon Guo Shuzhong in Xi'an, China. If you can remember Mr. Li, 30 years old when he had the surgery, had is face ripped off by a bear while hunting in rural Yunnan province where he lived in a small village community. Mr. Li's death, it has been said, was due to an infection because he wasn't taking prescribed immune-system drugs properly. Another report says he was favoring herbal medicines instead. No final report on the death will be available because Mr. Li has been buried for several months now, and no autopsy was completed.

Li Guoxing's surgery in 2006 was a ground breaking moment for Chinese surgery and something that I, as a photographer, was interested in covering. Although because I was a foreign journalist in China I was denied access to document Li Guoxing for almost a year after the surgery. In the summer of 2007 I was able to travel to Xi'an and, with Dr. Guo Zhuzhong's permission, follow Li Guoxing for a few days and document his life 1 year after the surgery. I had scheduled a visit to Mr. Li's village for 2009 to see how he was coping with his surgery in his natural environment, but that story won't be possible. Below is a link to the photo essay I shot of Li Guoxing when I visited the hospital in Xi'an in 2007. Above is a slide show of that essay. Also below is the most recent AFP story.


STORY: BEIJING (AFP) — A Chinese man who received a rare face transplant in 2006 has died, his doctor and a government official confirmed Saturday, highlighting the risks of a recent groundbreaking US operation.

Li Guoxing, 32, died in July at his rural home in rugged southwestern China after forsaking immune-system drugs in favor of herbal medicine, his surgeon Guo Shuzhong told AFP.

"His death was not caused by the surgery. Our operation was a success. But we cannot rule out a connection with the immune system drugs," said Guo, a surgeon with Xijing Hospital in the northern city of Xian who operated on Li in April 2006.

Qiao Guangliang, chief of Li's village in mountainous Yunnan province, also confirmed the death to AFP.

Both men said the exact cause of death was unknown as no autopsy was performed.

Li's death had been rumoured on Chinese blogs but has received scant attention in the mainstream press.

US doctors in Cleveland said last week they conducted the world's first near-total facial transplant on a disfigured woman.

It was just the fourth known facial transplant.

Doctors in France had performed the first partial transplant in 2005 on a 38-year-old woman disfigured in a dog attack.

The next year, Li, a farmer, underwent an apparently successful operation to replace about half his face after it was ripped off by a wild bear.

A 29-year-old French man then underwent surgery in 2007 for a facial tumor.

Guo said Li defied orders to remain in hospital and went home in late 2007.

Li soon stopped taking prescribed drugs in favour of a local herbal medicine, which Guo said may have caused liver damage.

Guo said the remoteness of Li's home had meant he could not make it to hospital for regular check-ups.

"After his death, I went to Yunnan and suggested an autopsy but his relatives refused" because Li had already been buried, Guo said.

AFP was not immediately able to reach Li's family members.

The US woman, whose identity has been kept secret, has shown no signs of rejecting her transplant, doctors said.

However, facial transplants remain controversial because of the risks and because they are driven by cosmetic, rather than life-saving concerns.


Ryan Pyle


  1. Anonymous00:10

    Thanks for posting this & the slideshow. It's the most informative public source of information on this case that I've seen.

  2. JPW,

    I'm glad you like the slide show and info. I can't understand why this took so long for this information to come around. The patient was a virtual celebrity in China for over a year before the attention faded. I'm amazed that it took 6 months before anyone realized he was actually dead.

    Odd stuff.


  3. Anonymous07:26

    Hi Ryan,

    Great work. I found the story and accompanying photos most interesting and informative. I was wondering about the other gentleman in the documentary - the man who was burned in the industrial accident. Will they give him a chance for this treatment? Is there any word on him? It seems he would have been more capable of understanding and handling the proceedure rather than this patient. I feel so sorry that because of the first man's "mismanagement" of his proceedure, this capable and deserving man might lose out on an opportunity. Thanks

  4. Very interessting post, but I could'nt see the images (the gallery is private it says). What a shame the man died after such heavy surgory. I thought about your comment: "However, facial transplants remain controversial because of the risks and because they are driven by cosmetic, rather than life-saving concerns". I can imagine he would become a social outkast without the face-transplant.

  5. Nancy,
    Very sorry about the link being broken. Please visit and search for face transplant. You'll see the full story.

    Ryan Pyle



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