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Stories of courageMaggie Steber
THE STORY OF A FACE

This story is difficult to look at. Yet we are asking you to go on the remarkable journey of how a young woman received a face transplant because it reveals something profound about our humanity. Our face conveys who we are, telegraphing a kaleidoscope of emotions. Are we our faces? Katie Stubblefield lost hers when she was 18. When she was 21, doctors gave Katie a new face. This is a story of trauma, identity, resilience, devotion, and amazing medical miracles.

Joanna Connors

When she was 18, Katie Stubblefield, a beautiful smart high school student, blew her face off in a suicide attempt. She survived against all odds, which pretty much describes this woman, survivor, who now has the face of someone else.

The first time the photographer met Katie Stubblefield in May 2016 she was in the hospital following surgery to implant a Distraction Osteogenesis to align her eyes. A doctor would come daily to literally turn the screws on this device poking out of Katie’s face. Since then Maggie Steber has been following her painful and hopeful remarkable story and continue now. What began as a tragedy ended up being about redemption.

The family and her parents Alesia and Robb, were warm and welcoming and always very frank in talking to and about Katie in front of the photographer. Katie had a pieced together face made from her stomach and thigh skin. There had no nose, crooked eyes, a huge chin to replace the one she blew off, a hole in her throat for breathing, and what was left of her lips hung down on the sides of her mouth. Food would fall out when she ate.

The family had undergone therapy to get past the terrible “accident” as they referred to it. Katie’s days were filled with physical therapy, speech therapy, learning braille as she probably won’t see again, and doctors appointments along with multiple small surgeries to prepare her for the possibility of a donated face. There was always a lot of pain.

At 7:30am on May 4, 2017, Katie finally received a face donation becoming the youngest full face transplant recipient in history. It was the face of a 31-year-old on life support following a drug overdose. She would not recover. The face was donated by her grandmother who months later got to see her granddaughter’s face when she met Katie in an emotional meeting.

Of all the parts of the human body, our face is our most distinctive attribute. It is the image we see in our mind’s eye when we think about our-selves. It is the physical emblem of our identity and sense of self. It’s our passport photo to the rest of the world. But it is also the way others seek to know us more deeply, to discover who we are inside. Faces helped us evolve as social beings. Aside from language, our faces are our most important vehicles for communicating. Our faces serve us in the basics of staying alive: eating, drinking, breathing. Faces are also the intake valves, so to speak, of four of the five basic senses, helping us to see, smell, taste and hear. It’s nothing to take for granted.

This work was published in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Born and raised in Texas, documentary photographer Maggie Steber has lived and worked all over the world. Early in her career she worked as a reporter and photographer for the Galveston Daily News and as a picture editor for the Associated Press in New York.
Maggie’s photos have appeared in magazines around the world, including Life, the New Yorker, Smithsonian, People, Newsweek, Time, and Sports Illustrated as well as Merian Magazine of Germany, and The Times Magazine of London, among others.

Her work in Haiti won Steber two major grants (the Ernst Haas Grant and the Alicia Patterson Foundation Grant for Journalistic Exploration of a Subject) and culminated in 1991 in the publication of a book, Dancing on Fire: Photographs From Haiti. Steber has also won the World Press Foundation Award, the Leica Medal of Excellence, an Overseas Press Club honor, and Pictures of the Year awards. She has served as a judge for many photo competitions, including the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Pictures of the Year competition.
Maggie’s work for National Geographic has included articles on Miami, the African slave trade, the Cherokee Nation, soldiers’ letters, and Dubai.

She currently lives in Miami, Florida.

maggiesteber.com

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