Virginia Man Deformed in Shotgun Accident Gets New Face

April 6, 2012

A single blast from a 12-gauge shotgun changed former Henry County resident Richard Norris' life forever, but he refused to give up, his father said.

"At times he would be depressed. He had a hard time. But he got on the Internet and started researching hospitals," Frank Norris said Wednesday while traveling through Henry County on his way home to Hillsville from the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

Norris said he left his son, Richard Lee Norris, 37, and his son's mother, Sandra Norris, at the medical center. There, Richard Norris got a new lease on life after undergoing an extensive, 36-hour face transplant earlier this month.

Frank Norris said his son is expected to be hospitalized for the next three weeks. After that, he will move close enough to the hospital to check in daily.

Richard Norris is "doing real good, a lot better than they thought he would," Frank Norris said. "We are looking at the sunny side now."

That has not always been the case for the family during the last 15 years.

The Norrises' ordeal began on Sept. 10, 1997, when Richard Norris was accidentally shot in the face in Fieldale, according to Henry County Sheriff's Lt. Col. Steve Eanes.

Notes from the investigation stated that Norris saw a 12-gauge shotgun leaning on the glass door of a gun cabinet in the home at 1018 Chestnut St. where he lived at the time, Eanes said.

Norris "unlocked the cabinet to get the gun off the glass door, and when he pulled it out, the gun discharged," Eanes said. Norris was shot in the face, he added.

He initially was taken to Memorial Hospital in Martinsville and then transported to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., "as soon as he was stable" enough to be moved, Eanes said.

Medical personnel there "did all they could for him," Frank Norris said.

The same was true for medical teams at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, he said.

But those efforts did not repair all of the injuries, and Richard Norris spent the next 15 years wearing a mask to cover his face and shopping at night, Frank Norris said.

"When we would go into a store, people (sometimes) thought we were robbing them," Frank Norris recalled. Others wondered aloud, "Who does he think he is with a mask on?"

Frank Norris said the comments were made "just by people not knowing any better" and were not intended to be mean.

Still, Richard Norris "had a rough time. But he handled it well. He couldn't go out in public and eat. The only time he would even eat with us was at holiday meals" because his injuries made eating difficult, Frank Norris said.

Amid the struggles of everyday life, Richard Norris researched hospitals that might be able to help him, Frank Norris said.

The family contacted the medical center in Maryland, and finally, "Maryland called us, and then we went up to see them. They promised us they would not do a Band-Aid surgery. If they started it, they would finish it," Frank Norris said.

His son was told that he stood a 50/50 chance of surviving the surgery, Norris said.

"He and I talked about it a whole lot," Norris recalled. "I told him, 'Richard, it doesn't bother me the way you are now.'"

Norris said his son explained that "he would rather take a chance" on the surgery, "and what happens, happens."

A grant from the military paid for the surgery, Frank Norris said.

"The reason they come up with this grant was they've got so many soldiers burned or injured," and the military was searching for a way to help them, Frank Norris said.

"This was an experiment really. That is about what it amounted to," he said.

In anticipation of the surgery, providing the right donor was found, Richard Norris went to Baltimore once a month for the last four or five years.

At those visits, "they check all your blood. They check everything that could be checked to make sure his system was ready for a transplant if they ever got to that point," Frank Norris said. "There were all kinds of tests. They would have a new test every month for him" because the face transplant also was new to Richard Norris' medical team.

Frank Norris said his son was excited at the prospect of a transplant, "but as time went on, he kind of got depressed at times. But he stayed in it" and continued to wait.

Twice before, the Norris family thought the transplant was going to happen, Frank Norris said. For one reason or another, neither of those attempts panned out.

The first one, however, did serve as a dry run, he said, and explained that the family was told they would have 12 hours to get to Baltimore once a donor was found. That ruled out vacations or extended trips away from home, Frank Norris said.

When the third call came for Richard Norris to travel to Baltimore, Frank Norris, a truck driver, was in Los Angeles. He went to the hospital as soon as he could join his son, who, along with his mother, was flown there.

Richard Norris underwent the grueling 36-hour surgery on March 19 and 20. It was considered the most extensive in history and included transplanting teeth, the upper and lower jaw, a portion of the tongue and all facial tissue from the scalp to the base of the neck, according to Associated Press reports.

Richard Norris is now eating through a feeding tube, "but he soon will be eating by mouth," Frank Norris said. His senses of smell and taste have returned, and "if you looked at him now, you'd think he'd been in a car accident. You'd never know" the horror his son has survived.

Frank Norris credits Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez for much of his son's success.

"Dr. Rodriguez is the greatest doctor I've ever seen. He talks to you like family," Frank Norris said. Rodriguez "wanted to make sure that what he did was right, because he said once you start it, there is no backing up."

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