World’s Second Face Transplant Patient Featured on ABC’s ‘Boston Med’

By Chris Ariens 

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In January of 2009, an ABC News crew began documenting the story of Joseph Helfgot, an entertainment executive who needed a heart transplant. Helfgot would never receive a new heart, but instead would donate his own organs to save others — including his face for the world’s second face transplant.

ABC News, and the crews assembling what would become “Boston Med,” suddenly had quite a story to tell.

This morning, after a screening on the 22nd Floor of ABC News headquarters in New York, Susan Whitman-Helfgot talked about how the end of her husband’s life meant a new beginning for Jim Maki. “Within 24 hours we went from being a recipient to a donor family,” says Whitman-Helfgot. And the ABC cameras — producers who shoot — captured it all.

Transplant recipient Maki was impressed with ABC’s documentation of his surgery. The families were comforted by the fact they had the opportunity to turn the cameras away. “We, all of us, had the option to say ‘no more,'” says Whitman-Helfgot. “I think I said it a few times,” added Dr. Bo Pomahac, who lead a team of up to 35 doctors, nurses and anesthesiologists in the day-long procedure.

Executive producer Terry Wrong said this is just one of the aspects that makes “Boston Med” much more a documentary than a reality series.

“We’ve had people pull out during editing,” says Wrong, “but it doesn’t happen to often.”

And just as TV viewing habits have changed over the past decade — when ABC News presented the first-of-its-kind medical documentary “Hopkins 24/7” — Wrong says “Boston Med” has evolved, too.

Wrong took the lead of some of ABC’s primetime dramas including “Brothers & Sisters” and “Grey’s Anatomy” to serialize the characters from episode to episode — in this case, the doctors and nurses who work at three renowned Boston hospitals.

This story-telling style has its own challenges. “Serializing characters is tough because we’re working without a script,” says Wrong. “These are real professionals doing their jobs, not [reality show participants] under contract.”

As for the Helfgot-Maki story, Phyllis McGrady the longtime ABC News executive in charge of the project decided to save the best for last, rather than debuting the series with the newsmaking surgery.

“In the end we decided this was so extraordinary and unique that we decided to end the series with this story,” says McGrady.

This episode airs Thursday, August 12. “Boston Med” debuts June 24 at 10pmET/9pmCT. Here’s the trailer.