From the Hills: A New Face

By Sylvia Peterson
Posted 2/14/22

A major historical and medical event occurred on Dec. 3, 1967. While the world followed the surgery in awe, Christiaan Barnard and his team performed the first human-to-human heart transplant at …

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From the Hills: A New Face

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A major historical and medical event occurred on Dec. 3, 1967. While the world followed the surgery in awe, Christiaan Barnard and his team performed the first human-to-human heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.

The recipient, Louis Washkansky, was a South African grocer who was dying from chronic heart disease. He received his new heart from Denise Darvall, a 25-year-old woman who was fatally injured in a car accident. 

The technique Barnard employed had been initially developed by a group of American researchers in the 1950s. Before a human transplant was attempted, Dr. Norman Shumway successfully transplanted a new heart into a dog at Stanford University in 1958.

After Washkansky’s surgery, he was given drugs to suppress his immune system and prevent his body from rejecting the “foreign body.” Unfortunately, the drugs also made it nearly impossible for him to fight illness. He died from pneumonia after only 18 days. However, the surgery itself was heralded as a success. His heart functioned normally until his death. Because of Washkansky’s experience, the development of better anti-rejection drugs have made transplantation more viable. 

And now, doctors are transplanting faces.

The machine guns and trenches of the First World War left thousands of soldiers severely disfigured. Finely crafted masks made from copper, then painted to match patients’ skin tones improved their appearance to a limited extent. But British doctor Harold Gillies, now considered a pioneer of plastic surgery, went much further. He created a sort of flesh mask or rudimentary skin graft. His first success was Walter Yeo, who suffered severe burns in combat, losing both his upper and lower eyelids. Skin was taken from his neck and chest and placed over his mid-face, allowing him to blink and close his eyes.

Fast forward to 2010. A man only identified as “Oscar” received the world’s first full facial transplant in Spain after accidentally shooting himself. Doctors gave him new skin, cheekbones, facial muscles, teeth, palate, lips and a jaw. If you “Google” him, the pictures are truly amazing. 

Because of the complexity of the surgery, there have only been 46 medical face transplants to date. 

Scripture documents many more.



Throughout the gospels, Jesus encountered scores of people with leprosy. It was — and still is — a horrible, disfiguring disease. Hands, feet and faces literally rot and fall away from the underlying tissue and bones. It was so contagious that lepers were forced to live outside the city gates, begging from people who couldn’t touch them according to Jewish law. No one wanted to look at them either. 

In Mark 1:40-45, a leper approached Jesus. “A man with leprosy came to Him and begged Him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’ He reached out His hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ He said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left, and he was cleansed.”

Jesus repeatedly healed the faces of people with leprosy, transplanting all the tissue destroyed by this horrible disease. Think about it — faces were literally recreated. Not just smiles — faces. Imagine how that would have felt. 

Today God is still replacing defective hearts with gentle ones, and he is changing faces of despair into joyful, grateful smiles. Miracles happen. Modern medicine is one of the most prolific. 

Many more people would have an opportunity for renewed life if we all shared the gospel stories and also agreed to be organ donors. (I’d be thrilled if someone wanted part of me after my physical death.)

Jesus died at Calvary so that everyone could receive a new heart and a new face. 

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Sylvia Peterson is former co-pastor for Bald Hill Community Church and the author of “The Red Door: Where Hurt and Holiness Collide,” which can be purchased at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. She and her husband are chaplains for the Bald Hills Fire Department. You can email her at sylviap7@comcast.net.

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