A 33-year-old Polish man whose face was brutally maimed during a workplace accident has become the first patient in the world to undergo a life-saving face transplant procedure. Surgeons today announced the successful results of the emergency undertaking, which occurred a mere three weeks after the incident.

"It is Poland's first face transplant and also the first in the world done to save the patient's life," Anna Uryga, spokeswoman for the Cancer Centre and Institute of Oncology in Gliwice, Poland, told the AFP.

Essentially last-ditch efforts

Indeed, the complex procedures — which remain experimental and rare — have until now been used to improve a patient's quality of life, not save it. They're essentially last-ditch efforts to restore key functions, like blinking or breathing through the nose, and to offer patients with severe facial injuries some degree of aesthetic improvement. Each transplant requires months of planning by surgical teams, and typically entails a lengthy search for the right donor — an individual whose skin tone, age, and sex correspond to the patient.

The patient's only chance at survival

But in this instance, a face transplant was seen as the patient's only chance at survival. Prior to the surgery, the extent of the man's facial injuries were so severe that doctors feared "his life was on the line." He was also unable to eat or speak.

The 27-hour transplant, which relied on tissues and bone from the face of a deceased man in his 30's, is likely to change that: surgeons anticipate that the patient, identified to media outlets only as Grzegorz, will be able to eat, speak, and see, and should have most of his facial function restored within eight months. He will, however, undergo extensive rehab and be required to take a regime of immunosuppression drugs for the rest of his life. The drugs, which prevent the body from rejecting foreign tissue, are associated with an increased risk of some cancers, as well as opportunistic infections.

Worldwide, fewer than 30 face transplants have been performed, with seven of them taking place in the US.