Writer: Melanie Rasnic
For 15 years, Richard Norris lived in the shadows. If he went outside of his Henry County, Virginia home, it was only at night. It was almost like a Southwestern Virginia version of the Phantom of the Opera. The seclusion began after Norris accidentally shot himself in the face. The accident left the young man with no teeth, no nose, and only a part of his tongue. He lost his sense of smell and taste. After one unsuccessful surgery after another, the accident left Norris with no desire to live.
However, in 2012, Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez and his team of highly skilled professionals decided that despite what Norris had been told over and over, there was a chance…with a full-face transplant. Such a thing had never been done before. Norris’ hope for even surviving the procedure was about 50/50. The operation was a success and today Richard Norris has a new face, a face he gladly shows in public. He also has a girlfriend. He has a life.
On that team of dedicated physicians who worked a miracle on a young man from the hills of Virginia was Richmond physician, Dr. Matthew G. Stanwix, one of the city’s top Board Certified Plastic Surgeons.
While Richard Norris’ full frontal face transplant might be the most publicized of Dr. Stanwix’ accomplishments, it may not be the one that gives him the greatest personal satisfaction. Besides operating a successful practice, here in Richmond, He and his wife, Dr. Jessica Wagner, a leading anesthesiologist, devote time on medical missions for the purpose of performing surgery on children in underprivileged nations who have been born with facial deformities.
One such mission was life hanging for Doctors Stanwix and Wagner – on multiple levels. The year was 2011. The location was Vietnam. They were there to perform surgery on children with cleft palates and/or cleft lips.
That’s where the two doctors met. “Matt and I met in a hotel lobby in Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam,” recalls Dr. Wagner. She had been on several mission trips in the past and was working in private practice, while Dr. Stanwix was continuing to hone his skills during his residency at Johns Hopkins.
Dr. Wagner continues “We clearly had an instant connection. Someone on the trip asked how long Matt and I had been together and he looked at his watch and said ‘About 18 hours.’ They were obviously surprised.”
Those 18 hours of love added to the collection of accomplishments they both share. Today, Dr. Wagner is an anesthesiologist specializing in office-based/out-patient procedures for local practices such as Virginia Physicians for Women. She attended Medical College of Wisconsin before completing her residency at Yale and a pediatric fellowship at National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Stanwix is a Board Certified Plastic Surgeon who specializes in using minimally invasive methods to achieve natural-looking, long-lasting results. “People take care of their bodies better than they ever have before,” he says. “I want my work to reflect that. I love seeing how happy people are when they see how great they look.”
Reflecting back on Richard Norris’ landmark 36-hour-surgery at the R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland, Dr. Stanwix says, “It was the most remarkable thing I’ve ever done. We prepared a long time for that. We did many dissections and lots of research for years. It was just…it was very emotional.”
Six years ago, the couple decided to move to Richmond. Over time, their family has grown, and they now have three children, ages five, three and one. While they also enjoy couples time visiting local craft breweries and regional wineries, their true joy and passion lies in spending as much family time together as possible. “ “We love that [Richmond] is such a family-friendly city with lots to do,” Dr. Wagner says, “We enjoy taking the kids to the zoo and Children’s Museum, walking the dog at Deep Run Park and cheering the boys on at soccer and tee-ball games.”
While not all of Dr. Stanwix’ surgeries carry the same drama on the national scene, the impact on a personal level is equally important to his patients and their families. One such patient, upon whom Dr. Stanwix performed a very complicated microsurgery had this to say, “The procedure was the only option to save my foot. If not for Dr. Stanwix, I would have lost my foot to amputation. I will always be thankful to him.”
Another patient who had suffered a disfiguring accident shared, “With his facial trauma experience and latest medical techniques, he was able to repair my cheek bones without cutting into my face. I now look like myself again, even better. I have never felt such confidence in anyone, as I do with him. I like the fact that he is up on recent medical breakthroughs and that I can trust him to be honest and forthwith with me. His compassion equals that of a family member.”