CLARK, NJ - In his free time, 22-year-old Clark native Joe DiMeo likes to work out, play with his dog, hang with some of his lifelong friends from town and play pool. All of these things might seem pretty average for a man of his age, but DiMeo can be described as anything but ordinary these days.
Lately DiMeo has been described more like a miracle of science after a successful double hand and face transplant thrust him into the national spotlight.
One Tragic Night
DiMeo has been determined and independent his whole life according to his dad John. “He always put his mind to something and got it done. When he was younger and even as he got older, he would go to the gym, take care of his health, eat well, be responsible,” said his dad. “He graduated ALJ, got a job and got his own place, what kid does that these days? He is something else.”
That spirit of determination has persisted over the last few years according to John as his son fought hard to win back a life of independence after a tragic accident in 2018. DiMeo, fell asleep behind the wheel of his car on his way home from work. He was pulled from a fiery crash and suffered third-degree burns over 80% of his body.
The Road to Recovery
When Joe came to after three months in a coma following the crash, the first thing that came to his mind he said, was his car. “I didn’t know about my body when I woke up,” he said.
DiMeo did not know he had suffered extensive burns and that although he had hands, he had lost his fingers, leaving him highly dependent on others for care.
“Once they showed me what happened to me, I thought, this is me now, I had to roll with the punches, there was nothing I could do, and I needed to get back to it (life),” DiMeo said.
Getting back to it was exactly what he did. He worked his therapies as hard as he could and beat every prediction given on the path to today.
“After the accident, doctors told us he was going to get worse, much worse, that this was a major thing, and they prepared us that with the amount of burns he had he might not survive plus he would need grafting and many surgeries,” John DiMeo said. “It never happened, he never got worse, it was just the opposite.”
John DiMeo said his son was truly dependent on them after the accident. "Our whole world became about Joe, getting him to appointments, caring for him and everything," he said. "My wife Rose has the perfect temperament for this, she took care of him round the clock, and Joe was the perfect patient too," he said. John shared that he and is his wife would often play the song 'Eye of the Tiger' from the movie Rocky as motivation when they got the day started with Joe.
He continued on to say he was amazed by his son since the day he came out of his coma. “Not one hesitation, never a down day of ‘why me,’ Joe never went negative, not once, he just kept going, and he kept doing everything he could with the medical staff and definitely on his own to get better and stronger, he is still doing that now,” he said.
The Consultation that Started it All
After a long period of rehabilitation, DiMeo went with his parents to see a plastic surgeon who according to John, told them he had done all he could for his son. The doctor then suggested a referral to his colleague, Dr. Eduardo Rodriquez at NYU Langone Health who might consider DiMeo as a possible candidate for a face and hand transplant.
DiMeo’s dad recalls the appointment as kind of unreal. “Our chins went through the floor, it was really shocking,” he said. “By the time we got out to the parking lot we (John, his wife Rose and Joe), were like, ‘what just happened in there?’ and I don’t think we talked the whole way home.”
After extensive evaluations, examinations, and consultations, the DiMeo’s found out that Joe was indeed a candidate for a double hand and face transplant.
Dr. Rodriguez said he could see that DiMeo was a young, motivated person that had been really independent up until the time of his accident which left him operating “essentially as a functional cripple, who was dependent on care from his parents.” Dr. Rodriguez knew he and his team could help improve Joe’s quality of life and ability to function.
“Joe was an ideal candidate for this procedure; he’s extremely motivated and dedicated to recovering the independence he lost after his accident,” said Dr. Rodriguez.
DiMeo said he knew immediately and without a doubt or fear that he wanted to do the transplant. He said he told Dr Rodriguez he wanted to get his hands done so he could go back to work.
“I never knew this was even possible, I mean I’ve seen the movie Face Off, but I thought that was just the movies,” said DiMeo. I didn’t know it was real.”
DiMeo said his parents were against the procedure initially because of all the risks associated with it. Removing his hands and his face with no guarantee of the outcome. They feared he could end up in an even more dire situation if the transplants did not work or that he could die from complications.
According to professionals at NYU Langone Health, “two other simultaneous face and hand transplant attempts are known to have been performed, in each case there was an adverse outcome: one patient ultimately died due to infectious complications, and another required removal of the hands after they failed to thrive.”
DiMeo said he never let fear rule his decisions, he persevered and pushed his parents too. He said it took about a month and a half to convince his parents that he needed to get back to living and the transplant was his best chance. “Living on the coach is not for me, I am an active person,” DiMeo said.
He said he knew from the first meeting with Dr. Rodriguez that he was going to fix him up. “I knew it, he (doctor) sounded so confident, I knew he could do it, and I was like, let’s do this.”
The Uncertainty of Waiting
Even after being approved as a candidate for transplant and finally getting his parents onboard, DiMeo had another huge hurdle to jump. According to doctors, DiMeo had only a 6% chance of finding a matching donor. “We are basically looking for a needle in a haystack,” Dr. Rodriguez said about locating the right match for Joe.
DiMeo jokingly described the slim chance as about the same chance the Jets had of getting back to the Super Bowl. “Patience was the key and I have a lot of it, I wasn’t rushing, not the doctor, not my parents, I just kept staying fit as I could,” he said. “There is a lot of stuff I have to do at home on my own. The therapists are there to guide me, but it depends on me.”
On August 10, 2020, a donor was found and surgery was scheduled for August 13. Then after a 23-hour procedure with over 140 healthcare professionals, months of therapy, grit and determination, DiMeo became what NYU Langone Health declared to be “the first successful combination transplant case of its kind in the world.”
A New Outlook
When he woke up from his transplant, DiMeo said his eyes were still swollen shut, but he could feel his new hands and face moving. It was not until later he realized that it was only psychologically that he “felt” his hands and face moving, because in reality there was no movement yet. He described it as feeling like a dream.
DiMeo's dad described seeing his son for the first time after the transplant . "Rose and I walked in and expected to see him wrapped up, there were no bandages,” he said. “I thought, perfect, beautiful, that is him now. I still can't get over the hands, this is all so amazing.”
In Joe DiMeo’s usual style, he got to work with his health team and pushed hard toward recovery. Within two weeks he was able to crush a water bottle with his new hands, then progressed steadily over the months to come. He said he is most looking forward to working and driving again one day.
“I’m just a normal kid living his life, that wants to get back to living his life, working and taking nothing for granted anymore,” he said. “I took my health and age for granted, didn’t think I needed much sleep, felt young and had so much energy.”
The Future Looks Bright
To date, DiMeo has had over 20 surgeries and is due for another in late March. He referred to it as his nip and tuck surgery to help tighten the skin on his new face now that the swelling has receded.
DiMeo’s dad said Joe isn’t one to run and share a milestone with him or his mom, instead they kind of just notice him doing things he could not manage prior to the transplant.
John said his son has been playing pool and ping pong thanks to his new hands. He shared that on Super Bowl Sunday, his wife Rose DiMeo called John to her side to quietly watch from a distance as Joe twirled pizza dough with his new hands.
“It was such a moment for us, from what he was until now is surreal, the whole experience from then until now is like a blur,” said John DiMeo. “Talk about miracles? They happen."
As far as Joe DiMeo is concerned, he is just doing what he needs to, to get back to living his fullest life. He is keenly aware of how fortunate he is to have found his way to Dr. Rodriguez and the team and to a still unknown family that approved the living donation that changed DiMeo’s life.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime gift, and I hope the family can take some comfort knowing that part of the donor lives on with me,” said DiMeo. “My parents and I are very grateful that I’ve been given this second chance. We’re also incredibly thankful to Dr. Rodriguez and the team of therapists, nurses, and surgeons who helped me get to where I am today.”
For those in the community willing to help, a GO FUND ME page was set up on behalf of DiMeo and his family to help him as he continues to reach milestones and rebuild his life.
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