HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – A Hot Springs man was at the center of a medical breakthrough this year: the recipient of the first-ever face and whole-eye transplant. 

But the procedure is just one half of his inspiring story – proving heart and determination are the key to success.

Aaron James has worn many hats throughout the years: high school basketball star, veteran, husband, father, and lineman. 

But his life changed on June 10, 2021, when Aaron was hit with 7,200 volts while working on a line – losing half his arm, his eye, and much of his face.

It was an accident that should have killed him; but Aaron had been a fighter his entire life and knew this wasn’t an end, but a beginning.

Enter Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez with NYU Langone’s Face Transplant program with a startling proposition: the first-ever face and whole-eye transplant.

It would be a dangerous surgery, one never done before and with risks including rejection and fatal brain infections.

But Aaron didn’t hesitate.

“Not at all,” James said, “Because I knew who was doing it.”

The agreement led to months of planning, with more than 15 rehearsals by James’ medical team before the big day. 

When the perfect donor was found and that day arrived, it took more than 140 health care experts working for 21 hours to get it done, taking skin, bone, nerves and blood vessels from the donor and grafting it to Aaron’s face – including an entire eye, attached to James’ optic nerve. 

“The fact that the eyeball is healthy, alive and that we’re beginning to see some communication from the eye, the retina, and the brain,” Dr. Rodriguez explained. “It’s truly remarkable.”

When Aaron woke up, he was making history – not just for the team at NYU Langone penning a new chapter in the medical books, but also for those who were with him through it all, able to once again see the face they love.

“My family, you know, they were behind me the whole way,” James said. “They wouldn’t have let me stop even if I wanted to.”

“To be in the middle of this. It’s just incredible,” James stated.

It’s not clear if Aaron will ever be able to see with his new eye, but doctors said it has good pressure and blood flow. 

Right now, James said he’s excited to spend Thanksgiving with his family for the first time in two years.