PARAMOUNT (CBSLA) — In 2013 while stopped on the shoulder of the 605 Freeway in his overheated car, Robert Chelsea was struck from behind by a drunk driver.
“My car went up in the air and came down and blew up,” he said.
Chelsea was treated for burns that covered 60% of his body.
“The tip of my tongue was burned off, my lips were burned off,” he said.
While in a coma, Chelsea received skin graft surgeries for his hands and arms, but his lips, nose and ear could not be reconstructed.
“I looked like a Halloween mask,” he said.
But five years later, Chelsea met with Doctor Bohdan Pomahac from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston — recognized as one of the worlds’ leaders in transplantation. After several evaluations, Chelsea was put on the waiting list.
And just last July, the 68-year-old made the trip to Boston to become the first African American and the oldest person to receive a full face transplant surgery. Pomahac led a team of 45 doctors through the 16-hour surgery.
“And those layers of the donor’s face were put one at a time and then connected,” Chelsea said.
Today, Chelsea is adjusting to his new face and a new head of hair.
“If you’re asking me how I feel about having someone else’s face, it is very different,” he said.
Doctors said that within a year, Chelsea will regain the ability to eat, smile and speak, but he said he is most looking forward to giving his daughter a kiss — something he hasn’t been able to do for years.
“It’s always nice to be able to kiss her cheeks,” he said. “And, for her, she would be able to kiss mine.”
Chelsea hoped that by sharing his story, he’ll inspire others to give the gift of life and become organ donors.
And while the accident has irrevocably changed Chelsea’s life, he said he felt privileged that God chose him to take this journey.
“I want to enjoy the ride,” he said. “He’s opened up a dimension that I never would have known as a normal person.”
Friends have set up a GoFundMe page for Chelsea to help cover the cost of travel to and from Boston, medical treatment and ongoing care.