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Susan Whitman-Helfgot  

Author, Organ Donation Advocate, & Science Enthusiast.

Susan Whitman-Helfgot is the widow of Joseph Helfgot, a Hollywood movie marketer who died from complications during a heart transplant operation in April of 2009. She was cast into the national spotlight when a Boston Globe reporter uncovered that her husband had been the donor in a historic transplant operation. It was her decision to make this historic donation, which led her to author The Match: Complete Strangers, a Miracle Face Transplant, Two Lives Transformed, the true story of her dramatic decision and the daring surgery that changed medical history—and lives—forever.

A gripping hospital drama and a compelling personal tale, The Match and Whitman-Helfgot’s presentations recount the extraordinary operation that brought Joseph’s face to James Maki, a Vietnam veteran and former heroin addict. She shares for the first time the intimate story behind the headline-making news, as well as the remarkable connections between the two men.

Joseph, a vivacious college professor and Hollywood marketing consultant, grew up in postwar New York City, the son of hardworking grocery store owners who had survived Auschwitz. Smart, passionate, and unique, Joseph charmed everyone he met. True to his nature, Joseph managed to stay upbeat during his twenty year battle with heart disease, but he lost the fight during his long-awaited transplant surgery.

The adopted son of Japanese-American parents who were forced into an internment camp during WWII, James Maki was a smart but troubled child. He never found direction and became hooked on heroin while serving in Vietnam. After returning home one night while high, he fell onto the subway tracks, landing on the electric third rail. His face was essentially burned off, making it impossible for him to eat or speak normally—or go outside without having people stare or even scream.

Whitman-Helfgot shares this emotional tale of how the seemingly disparate lives of Joseph Helfgot and James Maki came to intersect, how she grappled with the difficult decision to donate her husband’s face, and how this choice affected all those involved, from the organ bank employee who had to ask an unthinkable question, to the pioneering Dr. Pomahac, who helped get a grant for future face transplants. Ultimately, this daring surgery did more than heal one man; it turned strangers into a family, now closely bonded with a passionate goal to increase awareness of organ donation.

In the late 1990s, Whitman-Helfgot, a former insurance company executive, decided to pursue her first love, science, returning to college to study astronomy and biology. She co-founded a charter middle school in Los Angeles while pursuing her studies. Her knowledge of biology coupled with a decade as her husband’s caregiver outside and within hospital walls has given her a unique and valuable perspective and she has become an outspoken advocate for organ donation. She has presented to national medical conferences and testified before the Commonwealth of Massachusetts legislature, and has appeared on television programs including Good Morning America and Dr. Oz.

Whitman-Helfgot established the Joseph H. Helfgot Foundation with funds from the sale of The Match. Projects include Team Heart Rwanda and an ongoing research study about public perceptions concerning face transplantation. The foundation also provides funding support for face transplant medical research.

An avid runner and stargazer, Susan lives with her children and cocker spaniel in a suburb of Boston.

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