As soon as surgeons in France had performed the first partial face transplant (below) late in November, psychologists began to question whether the patient was mentally stable enough to handle the stressful, high-risk procedure. The unidentified woman's face had been mauled by her dog, and doctors had said the damage was too severe for reconstructive surgery. Evidence suggested the woman was suicidal or at a minimum traumatized, but surgeon Jean-Michel Dubernard of Edouard Herriot Hospital in Lyon told the media that the woman had undergone thorough psychological testing that showed she was ready for the transplant's challenges.
Since then, experts have begun to discuss how any analyst could fully know if an individual were “ready” for such a novel procedure. Some psychological readiness criteria exist for patients who seek elective plastic surgery, but there is little literature about the mental attributes that make someone a good candidate for reconstructive surgery, much less a highly visible transplant.
Critics of the French operation say that in addition to needing the mettle to follow postsurgical procedures and stick with anti-tissue-rejection medication and side effects, the woman will have to withstand intense public scrutiny, and they wonder if she is up to it. But Elaine Walker, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Emory University, notes that from the patient's perspective, “the stresses may not trump the stress of living with the original disfigurement.”
Walker points out that the patient essentially had to choose between three psychologically challenging options: live with a terrible disfigurement that would very likely instill in her significant social anxiety, attempt a protracted series of reconstructive surgeries that doctors said might not succeed, or undergo the risky face transplant. “None of the alternatives would be free of psychological stress,” she observes.