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CHICAGO (AP) -- The nation's first full face transplant patients are growing into their new appearances - literally.
Medical imaging shows new blood vessel networks have formed, connecting transplanted skin with the patients' facial tissue, a finding that may help improve future face transplant surgeries, doctors announced Wednesday.
Dallas Wiens, the first U.S. man to get a full face transplant, is a remarkable example of that success. The 28-year-old Fort Worth man attended Wednesday's annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America with his new wife and golden retriever guide dog. Despite still visible facial scars from the March 2011 surgery, he looks and sounds like a recovered man.
"My entire life is a miracle," Wiens said at a news conference.
His face was burned off in a 2008 painting accident at his church. He was on a cherry-picker lift when his head hit a high voltage wire.
After surgery, Wiens lived for two years with no facial features and just a two-inch slit for a mouth, until his transplant at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Imaging studies on Wiens and two other full face transplants done at Brigham in 2011 show that a network of new blood vessels had formed just a year after the operations. A fourth full face transplant was performed at Brigham earlier this year.
The same thing typically happens with other transplants and it helps ensure their success by boosting blood flow to the donor tissue. But Brigham doctors say this is the first time it has happened with full face transplants.
The finding could eventually shorten the operating time for future face transplants, Brigham radiologist Dr. Frank Rybicki said. The operations can take up to 30 hours and include attaching spaghetti-thin arteries in the patients' existing tissue to the donor face, but the findings suggest attaching only two facial or neck arteries instead of several is sufficient, he said.
Dr. Samir Mardini, a Mayo Clinic expert in reconstructive transplant surgery, said blood vessel reorganization occurs with other types of tissue transplants - doctors call it "neovascularization" and it helps ensure the tissue's survival by improving blood flow.
"It's interesting that they've shown it" with face transplants, but it's not a surprise, Mardini said.
Face transplants, using cadaver donors, are still experimental. Fewer than 30 have been done since the first in 2005, said Dr. Branko Bojovich, a surgeon involved in a 2012 face transplant at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
He called the Boston team's findings "very reassuring" for surgeons and for future patients.
"We're assuming that these patients will hopefully go on to live productive and long lives," Bojovich said.
Wiens' life before the accident was troubled, and he says he misses nothing about it except possibly his eyesight.
"I've learned more about other people and myself, being blind," he said.
He met his wife, Jamie Nash, in a support group for burn patients, and they were married in March at the same church where Wiens' accident occurred. That was a symbolic choice, Wiens said.
"The most life-changing experience I had happened at that church. I felt like the beginning of my new life should happen there," he said.
Nash, 30, had suffered severe burns in a 2010 car crash in which she lost control of her car while texting.
The couple lives with his 6-year-old daughter and her two children. Nash helps him "see" and he helps her do things that are difficult because of her scarred, stiff arms.
Together, they work with a foundation Nash set up to advocate against texting and driving, visiting schools to bring the message to teens. Wiens says the work helps make his new life fulfilling.
"Our life is incredible," Nash said Wednesday. "We are so much in love."
Added Wiens, "There is life after tragedy."
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) -- The University of Notre Dame on Tuesday filed another lawsuit opposing portions of the federal health care overhaul that forces it to provide health insurance for students and employees that includes birth control, saying it contravenes the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in South Bend claims the Affordable Health Care Act violates Notre Dame's freedom to practice religion without government interference. Under the law, employers must provide insurance that covers a range of preventive care, free of charge, including contraception. The Catholic Church prohibits the use of contraceptives.
The lawsuit challenges a compromise, or accomodations, offered by the Obama administration that attempted to create a buffer for religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and social service groups that oppose birth control. The law requires insurers or the health plan's outside administrator to pay for birth control coverage and creates a way to reimburse them.
The Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame's president, said that wasn't enough.
"The government's accommodations would require us to forfeit our rights, to facilitate and become entangled in a program inconsistent with Catholic teaching and to create the impression that the university cooperates with and condones activities incompatible with its mission," he said in a statement.
Notre Dame says in the lawsuit that its employee health plans are self-insured, covering about 4,600 employees and a total of about 11,000 people. Its student health plans cover about 2,600 students. The lawsuit says the health plans do not cover abortion-inducing products, contraceptives or sterilization.
"The U.S. government mandate, therefore, requires Notre Dame to do precisely what its sincerely held religious beliefs prohibit - pay for, facilitate access to, and/or become entangled in the provision of objectionable products and services or else incur crippling sanctions," the lawsuit says.
Notre Dame argues that the fines of $2,000 per employee if it eliminates its employee health plan, or $100 a day for each affected beneficiary if it refuses to provide or facilitate the coverage, would coerce it into violating its religious beliefs.
Daniel Conkle, an Indiana University professor of law and adjunct professor of religious studies, said Notre Dame's arguments are similar those in a case last month where a federal judge in Pennsylvania granted the Pittsburgh and Erie Catholic dioceses a delay in complying with the federal mandates.
The Obama administration argues that the burden on the Catholic entities is minimal, Conkle said. Notre Dame and other Catholic groups say it's substantial.
Steve Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America, said the administration's accommodations "are sufficient to protect the Catholic conscience for administrators of these plans at Catholic universities." But he said the lawsuits were still needed.
The accommodations "really rest on the good graces of the administration and those good graces could disappear with a new administration," he said.
Notre Dame argues that it is not seeking to impose its religious beliefs on others, but that it just wants to protect its right to the free exercise of its religion. The lawsuit argues that the government could pay for contraception through the expansion of its existing network of family planning clinics or by creating a broader exemption for religious employers.
Notre Dame filed a similar lawsuit in May 2012. U.S. District Judge Robert Miller Jr. dismissed that case last December, saying the university wasn't facing any imminent penalty or restrictions because the federal government was reworking some of the coverage regulations.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to consider two cases in which business have objected to covering birth control for employees on religious grounds. Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned arts and crafts chain with 13,000 full-time employees, won its case in lower courts, while Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Mennonite-owned company that employs 950 people in making wood cabinets, lost its claims in lower courts.
About 40 for-profit companies have requested an exemption from covering some or all forms of contraception.