Warning: Some of the pictures featured in this story may be upsetting.
At 24 years old, Cameron Underwood’s life was changed forever by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
He nearly died from the grisly injuries that destroyed most of his jaw, his teeth, and his nose. His eyesight and speech were also permanently impaired, and his disfigured face only worsened his depression, forcing Underwood to wear a mask in public.
So it's incredible that, less than two years later, Underwood was smiling again, thanks to cutting-edge facial surgery that he says gave him "a second chance at life."
The California man is one of about 40 people who have received a face transplant, a complicated procedure which combines plastic surgery and donated skin from a cadaver to reconstruct a damaged face.
It’s a treatment so rare that Underwood was not even aware of it before his injury in 2016.
"Two years ago, I don’t think we had any idea about face transplants, that it was even possible," he told Time.
But after reading a magazine story about a facial transplant at New York University, his mother called the college's Langone Health clinic, begging them to help her son.
Doctors quickly decided Underwood was a perfect candidate for the surgery, and he was flown out to New York on short notice to undergo the operation in January.
Doctors were able to graft a face from a 23-year-old Manhattan organ donor named Will Fisher onto Underwood’s head in a 25-hour operation featuring more than 100 medical professionals, after reconstructing large sections of Underwood’s mouth
And while Underwood was following in the footsteps of dozens of other facial transplant recipients, his case was groundbreaking in a number of ways.
First, about a third of the cost of surgery was covered by private health insurance, opening the doors for countless other patients who could benefit from facial transplants. The rest was paid for thanks to medical grants and charitable donations.
Underwood also recovered about twice as fast as most facial transplant patients, spending just over a month recovering in hospital thanks to new 3D planning and printing techniques used in his surgery.
Fisher’s mother, Sally, said that her son’s death was "a tragedy," but she’s thankful that "in honoring his decision, we were able to give his life to others."
The proof of the surgery’s success is Underwood’s new lease on life: he’s gone skydiving and started enjoying life again for the first time since his injury.
And while he’s "still recovering and gaining back some sensation and mobility," the young man is in love with the results his doctors achieved.
He can smile again, speak more easily, eat solid food, and doesn’t have to endure staring from strangers in public.
"I absolutely feel like myself [now]," Underwood said. "Every time I look in the mirror, I see me. I see my eyes and my face. It’s all growing on me, so to speak."