The Science of Ash and Ashes

An extra-ordinary week which started for me in Guernsey, stuck in Guernsey due to the volcanic ash… I eventually got on a ferry to Weymouth (meeting a friend who had travelled all the way from Beijing over 4 days) reflecting on how nature’s forces are still so little understood despite all modern science’s insights and methods…

And then to the British Burns Association conference to see how burns surgery, therapies and psychological care has advanced over the last 40 years… I was given the chance to reflect on my ‘journey’ since my accident back in 1970 – or, rather, as I described it, the three journeys that can be traced back to that night and that fire…

Nature’s force that night burned 40% of my skin and rendered my face unrecognisable… My long road to recovery from those ashes crucially involved my superb surgery team figuring out the best way to save me and then to reconstruct my face – ‘cutting edge science/surgery’, to coin a phrase, that gave me a face which I could literally live with.

Archibald McIndoe, the famous surgeon who rebuilt the Battle of Britain fighter pilots’ faces (the Guinea Pigs) said in the late 40s: “it is not possible to construct a face of which the observer is unconscious but it should not leave in his/her mind an impression of revulsion, and the patient should not be an object of remark or pity”.

At the BBA, I attended a remarkable lecture (by surgeon Stuart Watson) on the amazing repertoire now available to the 21st Century surgeon – and I was pleased to see him present at my lecture on how the modern science of psycho-social interventions can now enable patients of all ages to rebuild their self-esteem and self-confidence. The pioneering social skills training which Changing Faces has done much to develop has now been shown to enable patients to mediate the impact of their disfigurement in today’s culture that prizes looks so much…

Today I have witnessed and been asked to comment on a spectacular scientific breakthrough – the world’s first full face transplant. Although details are still sketchy, we all hope that the young Spanish farmer who has chosen to undergo this radical experimental surgery will come through with a face that is fully functional and aesthetically pleasing – and will regain self-esteem and self-confidence with his new face. The analysis done by the research teams, the surgeons and the psychologists working with this patient will hopefully inform and enhance future treatments and surgeons’ repertoires.

The week as a whole has resounded to words once used to me by a wise Indian chaikhana owner at a low point in my personal journey, we have “far to go and much to learn”.