Katie Stubblefield reunites with MetroHealth therapists who helped her prepare for face transplant
"Metro got her to the transplant. We were here up to two days before her transplant. We will be forever grateful for these therapists. These are life-long people in our life."
As television cameramen jockeyed for position to get the best shots of Katie Stubblefield, the youngest face transplant patient in the United States, she and her parents reunited with the MetroHealth therapists who cared for them during their darkest days.
In 2014, 18-year-old Katie took her brother’s rifle and pulled the trigger. The blast ripped through her face, leaving her blind and disfigured. The journey to take her life back began with the MetroHealth rehabilitation team.
Physical, occupational and speech therapists worked with Katie at the Old Brooklyn Campus to prepare her for the groundbreaking face transplant at the Cleveland Clinic.
Katie recalls her exact location when they got the call that a donor had been found for the transplant. “We were driving to Metro for therapy.”
It was a trip she and her parents, Robb and Alesia, had made dozens of times over two years.
"Metro got her to the transplant," says Alesia. "We were here up to two days before her transplant. We will be forever grateful for these therapists. These are life-long people in our life."
Without the therapy she received from MetroHealth, Katie never would have been eligible for the transplant. Their efforts have played a huge role in her recovery.
The reunion was not about reliving the grueling hours of therapy, though, it was about reconnecting with the young woman, now 23, who touched many lives along her journey.
“She taught all of us a lot. We’ll know Katie forever. The family has embraced Cleveland, and Cleveland has embraced them.”
“I feel blessed to be a part of it,” says Lisa Gerber, the physical therapist who helped Katie learn to walk again. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. She would always persevere, she never gave up.” Lisa feels a special kinship toward Katie and her parents. "I have teenage daughters," she says.
The reunion was filled with hugs and updates and media interviews. Katie shared news about being a bridesmaid over Christmas and dancing until midnight. (Her parents helped interpret every sentence, since Katie is still struggling with her speech.) Her next surgery will involve work on her tongue and palate to help improve her speech.
As more therapists came by to say hello and offer hugs, just as many stood back in awe of what was truly a miraculous surgery.
"I can feel my face," says Katie. "Sensation is coming back more and more. I am so grateful to the donor and her family," she says. "They are saints."
After spending most of their time at the Ronald McDonald House in University Circle, the Stubblefields have recently settled into an apartment in Little Italy where Katie has become particularly enamored of margherita pizza. "We order it so much the restaurant jokes they are going to rename it Katie's Pizza," says Robb.
In addition to her faith and family, Katie counts her MetroHealth family as a key motivator that helped her get through her ordeal. When asked what her plans are, Katie says she wants to help people. “I’m considering counseling or becoming an English literature teacher."
“She taught all of us a lot,” says Sue Ann Philippar, her speech therapist. “We’ll know Katie forever. The family has embraced Cleveland, and Cleveland has embraced them.”
The MetroHealth System, Cuyahoga County’s public health system, is honoring its commitment to create a healthier community by building a new hospital on its main campus in Cleveland. The building, and the 25 acres of green space around it, are catalyzing the revitalization of MetroHealth’s West Side neighborhood.
MetroHealth will break ground on the new hospital in late 2018, using nearly $1 billion it borrowed on its own credit after dramatically improving its finances. In the past five years, MetroHealth’s operating revenue has increased by 44.5 percent and its number of employees by 21 percent. Today, its staff of 7,700 provides care at MetroHealth’s four hospitals, four emergency departments and more than 20 health centers and 40 additional sites throughout Cuyahoga County. In the past year, MetroHealth has served 300,000 patients at more than 1.4 million visits in its hospitals and health centers, 75 percent of whom are uninsured or covered by Medicare or Medicaid.
The health system is home to Cuyahoga County’s most experienced Level I Adult Trauma Center, verified since 1992, and the only adult and pediatric burn center in the state of Ohio.
As an academic medical center, MetroHealth is committed to teaching and research. Each active staff physician holds a faculty appointment at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and its main campus hospital houses a Cleveland Metropolitan School District high school of science and health.
For more information, visit metrohealth.org.