January 27th, 2011
12:07 PM ET
Face transplant: $349,959
A year’s supply of immune-suppressing drugs: $14,000 – $20,000
Being able to breathe, to eat and to feel better about appearing in public: priceless
After celebrating the initial success of the first face transplant in the United States, the doctors who performed the operation assessed the financial cost in a report published in the American Journal of Transplantation.
Before the transplant, Culp had 23 reconstructive surgeries. The cost of all these traditional procedures was $353,480 – covered by her insurance company.
The cost of the face transplant plus one year of her post-operation care was $349,959 – which was slightly less than the cost of Culp’s other operations.
Dr. Maria Siemionow, who led the face transplant team, said the $4,000 difference isn’t huge, but it indicates that face transplants cost close to the sum of several reconstructive procedures and deliver better results.
“The message which I’m trying to give is that patients can have improvements of their quality of life and go through less suffering,” she said. “However, no patient could afford [a face transplant] out-of-pocket.”
The procedure is not covered by insurance companies, because it is considered experimental surgery and only 11 operations have been done in the last five years.
“There are many patients who benefit from this type of reconstructive complex surgery like a face transplant,” Siemionow said. “There is the hope that there will be resources which will cover the cost of a face transplant.”
Cleveland Clinic covered the cost of Culp’s transplant and will provide her post-operation care. She requires monthly check-ups and will take immune-suppressing drugs for the rest of her life – those drugs cost between $14,000 to $20,000 a year.
Had Culp not received the face transplant, she would’ve needed five to 10 additional surgeries, Siemionow said.
Culp’s previous two dozen surgeries did not help her regain function or appearance. She breathed through a tracheotomy tube, which extended from a hole in her neck, and fed herself through a gastric tube attached to her stomach.
“You cannot put it in dollars,” Siemionow said. “The patient is going through suffering which is not measurable.”
Culp now speaks, breathes and eats without devices. She has appeared on CNN, talking about how her life has improved, how she’s able to go outside without distress. Before her transplant, Culp said she was afraid to go out in public because of the relentless teasing and staring.
Siemionow and her co-authors wrote in the journal article: “Although the cost of facial transplantation is considerable, the alleviation of psychological and physiological suffering, exceptional functional recovery and fulfillment of long-lasting hope for social reintegration may be priceless.”
It remains to be seen whether more institutions will explore face transplantation and offer the procedure to patients.
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