NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A New Jersey man is learning how to smile and pick up a pencil again after a rare surgery to replace his face and hands.
In July 2018, 22-year-old Joe Dimeo, of Clark, New Jersey, was involved in a car accident that completely derailed his life.READ MORE: COVID Vaccine: Competitors Johnson & Johnson And Merck & Co. Teaming Up To Increase Supply
“I was coming home from work, from a nightshift. I guess I fell asleep on the steering wheel and just rolled off the road. My car flipped and caught on fire,” Dimeo said.
He suffered third degrees burns on 80% of his body and had to be placed in a medically induced coma for three months.
His eyelids, ears, nose and lips were literally melted away, and doctors had to amputate his fingers.
He underwent 20 reconstructive surgeries before becoming the recipient of the world’s first successful face and double hand transplant.
Doctors say his transformation has been remarkable.
“I surprise myself every day,” Dimeo said.
Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, the renowned plastic surgeon at NYU Langone Health who led the history-making surgery, says Dimeo’s optimistic attitude contributed to his success.
“Even when he was at his worst, physically compromised, not looking the way he used to be, he was always the most upbeat individual,” Rodriguez said.
Dimeo was upbeat despite the hurdles before him.READ MORE: Wife Of Top Cuomo Aide Shows Support On Social Media For Governor's Latest Sexual Harassment Accuser
There was only a 6% chance of finding a compatible donor for Dimeo, a challenge compounded by the pandemic.
But on Aug. 10, 2020, a perfect match was found in Delaware.
Two days later, a surgical team, more than 140 strong, rallied in rotation for the 23-hour marathon surgery.
A face and double hand transplant was only attempted twice before, both times ending in failure.
Today, six months after the operation, Dimeo is undergoing intense physical therapy and is thriving with no complications.
“It’s a second chance at life, so there’s, like, no excuse to not be motivated,” Diemo said.
Dimeo says he’s grateful for the surgical team that’s given him the chance to regain his independence. He’s hoping to pay it forward by inspiring others.
“You gotta roll with the punches, whatever life throws at you. And there’s always light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Dimeo is definitely proof of that.
Doctors say Dimeo’s rehabilitation is ahead of schedule. Dimeo says one of his main goals is to be able to drive again.MORE NEWS: Celebrity TV Doctor Dr. Oz Helps Rescue Man Who Collapsed At Newark Airport
MORE FROM CBS NEW YORK