Man who received face transplant from donor twice his age finds love

A man who had the world’s first face and double hand transplant from a donor twice his age has shared how he went on to find love.

Joe DiMeo, 24, had third-degree burns on 80% of his body and needed to have his fingertips amputated after his Dodge Challenger car crashed and burst into flames in July 2018.

After the accident, he endured 20 reconstructive plastic surgeries and skin grafts before spending 23 hours in August 2020 having the historic transplants.

Joe has shared how, even though he lost friends after his accident, he also found love with girlfriend Jessica Koby, 32, who reached out to him on Instagram two years ago when she read about his story.

Joe, who says it is ‘amazing’ to be more independent again, described how a fellow burns survivor said that hearing Joe’s story stopped them from deciding to end their life.

Joe, from New Jersey, said: ‘It didn’t feel weird being given the face of someone nearly twice my age, because I was just completely ready to start my life again.

‘This is who I am now and I came to terms with that quite quickly really.

‘When I was burnt I was not looking for love but I was always confident it would happen eventually because I am the same on the inside.

‘Nothing has changed besides my skin.

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‘Now it’s really just amazing getting independence again.

‘After surgery I was like at 0% – I couldn’t really do anything.

‘Now I feel like I’m at 50%. I can cook, clean, do laundry and I can move my phone better.’

He’s even been able to get behind the wheel of a car again.

‘I just drive my girlfriend’s Subaru Crosstrek,’ he said. ‘I don’t have my own car yet.

‘I didn’t really think I could motivate people until someone DMd me saying “you saved me from suicide”.

‘I never thought I could do that with my story and that has pushed me to share it more and more.

‘I have had a couple of burnt people hit me up about how to cope. I just tell them to just keep acting how you’ve always acted.

‘You’ll find out who your real friends are doing that. It’s way easier said than done, and I always say that too.’

Joe’s burns happened after he fell asleep at the wheel driving home from a night shift at his job in a food testing lab in July 2018 in Hillside, New Jersey.

He said: ‘My car veered off the side of the road, hit a curb, flipped a couple of times and then caught on fire.

‘I had a mod that scraped the curb which created a spark and then the oil pan cracked in the impact and then they just created a flame.

‘I was 80% burnt. They had to amputate my fingertips to the second knuckle and then they had to suture my eyelids because they were burned. It was like looking out of a chain link fence.

‘I was ready for the transplant when it was offered to me. I didn’t want to live how I was living.’

It took a massive team of 140 surgeons, nurses and support staff at NYU Langone Hospital in New York City to complete the pioneering procedure that would give Joe some precious independence in August 2020.

At that point, it had only been attempted twice before.

‘My donor was a 48-year-old stroke victim from Delaware who died two days before my surgery,’ he said.

‘That’s literally all I know because the doctors flat-out refused to tell me any more.

‘I’ve never had any contact from his family or friends or anyone who knew him.

‘I even wanted a guy or a girl just to make the process faster. I told my doctor I would prefer a girl’s face just so I wouldn’t have to shave all the time.

‘They took the skin and then the muscles, the tendons, the nerves and all the little veins that are attached to it to get the blood to flow to the skin.

‘It was really intense when I came round. As soon as I woke up I had nurses and occupational therapists on me instantly.

‘It was super difficult. For the first couple of weeks, I wasn’t physically able to even move my fingers.

‘They would have to move them for me just so the muscle memory could get there.

‘I was trying to get muscle memory by pinching each finger and then pretending to pick up foam cubes and trying to grab a water bottle.

‘I’ll be on medication for the rest of my life. I take like 15 pills a day.

‘The main three just prevent my transplants from being rejected, and the rest are just electrolytes that all the transplant meds take away.’

Then, two years ago, Joe got the Instagram message from Jessica that would change his life.

Their relationship grew stronger as they bonded over the love they share for for Boston Terrier dogs. Now, they share four-legged friends Buster, six, and Kirkland, seven.

Jessica, a nurse, said: ‘We developed a relationship initially long distance, and then I moved from southern California to be closer to him, and it has been great ever since.

‘He is a pretty quiet guy so at first when you’re just getting to know him he keeps to himself and just observes his surroundings.

‘He is very knowledgeable and anyone he talks to he can carry a conversation with.

‘I really like that about him because I think that someone who is educated and speaks well is very attractive.

‘I love that he is gentle, kind and he is so courageous.

‘For everything he has gone through, he remains so positive and such a light.

‘I love Joe inside and out because he is a funny guy, he knew what he wanted in life and was very mature for his age.’

‘When I had the accident,’ said Joe, ‘I lost a lot of fake friends.

‘It was sad to see my fake friends all go, but then you realise who your real friends are and you appreciate them more.

‘So all I had left was my real friends and they have always supported me in whatever I wanted to do.

‘People look at me, which doesn’t bother me. I’m 6″1’ and wide and then on top of that, I wear short sleeves a lot of the time so you can see my burnt arms.

‘So I don’t mind people staring, because I would stare too. I could do a pity party but that’s just not me.

‘I’m writing a book, so I want to get that out, we’re looking at houses because our apartment is just too small for us right now, and I’d like to get my own car.’

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