Aaron James, 46, suffered an accident in 2021 involving high-voltage power lines, which destroyed most of his face and one eye.
While his right eye still works, surgeons at New York University Langone Health hoped that replacing his missing eye would yield better cosmetic results for his new face.
The NYU team announced their success on Thursday, with the new eye already supporting his transplanted eye socket and lid.
James is recovering well from the transplants last May, with his donated eye looking very healthy.
James told the AP: “It feels good. I still don’t have any movement in it yet. My eyelid, I can’t blink yet. But I’m getting sensation now.
“You got to start somewhere, there’s got to be a first person somewhere. Maybe you’ll learn something from it that will help the next person.”
While transplants of the cornea are common to treat certain types of vision loss, transplanting an entire human eye – including the eyeball’s blood supply and critical optic nerve – is extremely rare.
James’ surgery offers scientists a new look into how the human eye tries to heal.
Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, NYU’s plastic surgery chief who led the transplant, said: “We’re not claiming that we are going to restore sight. But there’s no doubt in my mind that we are one step closer.”
Some specialists had feared that James’ new eye would “shrivel like a raisin”, but instead, it is “plump and full of fluid”, signalling a good blood flow and no sign of rejection.
Dr. Jeffrey Goldberg, chair of ophthalmology at Stanford University, said “it’s an amazing validation” of animal experiments that have kept transplanted eyes alive.
Goldberg praised the NYU team’s “audacity” in aiming for optic nerve repair and he hopes the transplant will inspire more research.
He said: “We’re really on the precipice of being able to do this.”
James had been working for a power line company in June 2021 when he was shocked by a live wire, causing him to nearly die.
He lost his left arm, his left eye, and multiple surgeries could not repair extensive facial injuries.
He required breathing and feeding tubes, and he wore a face mask and eye patch in public.
James’ wife, Meagan James, said: “In his mind and his heart, it’s him – so I didn’t care that, you know, he didn’t have a nose. But I did care that it bothered him.”
James is only the 19th person in the US to receive a face transplant, and the eye experiment added even more complications to the 21-hour operation.
A matching donor was found three months after James was placed on the national transplant waiting list.
James cannot yet open his eyelid, but when doctors pushed on his eye, James felt sensation. Rodriguez also detected subtle movements beginning in muscles around the eye.
Dr. David Klassen, chief medical officer of the United Network for Organ Sharing, said the surgery marks “a technical tour de force”.
And as for James, he’s just “taking it one day at a time”.