NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A personal tragedy ended with a medical miracle for a man who received a facial transplant you have to see to believe.

While organs are transplanted thousands of times a year, facial procedures are still relatively rare with only 40 ever been done worldwide. They’re herculean operations which can take anywhere from 25 to 36 hours, and until now the results have not always looked great.

It was only a year and a half ago that 26-year-old Cameron Underwood suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He survived with a devastating facial deformity including the loss of his jaw, nose, and all but one tooth.

Facial reconstruction wasn’t an option, so Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez from NYU Langone Health would lead the facial transplant team.

“Cameron is the third face transplant that I’ve performed, and when I look at his result it’s far exceeded my expectations,” he said.

Much of the presurgical planning was guided by state-of-the-art technology, including 3D imaging and intra-operative CAT scans that ensured bones, implantable plates and screws to anchor the face were all aligned perfectly.

It also helped reduce surgery time to 24 hours, 11 hours shorter than the first face transplant done in 2012. At a press conference on Thursday, Cameron thanked his doctors and had an emotional message for his donor.

“I want Shelly and her family to know how much I appreciate their gift and I will always honor Will’s legacy,” said.

The donor was 23-year-old William Fisher, who registered as an organ donor prior to his tragic death. Will’s mother welcomed Cameron to New York prior to his surgery. The recipient of her son’s face still has a way to go, but has made remarkable progress.

“There are things he has to work at,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “Chewing, making sure teeth are coming together, the ability to swallow, speak. Speech therapy is a very important part of his healing process.”