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After 58 surgeries, Harbor Beach suicide survivor awaiting face transplant

Derek Pfaff is hoping to become the fourth patient to get a new face at the Cleveland Clinic
Updated: May. 26, 2021 at 7:21 PM EDT
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HARBOR BEACH, Mich. (WJRT) - Derek Pfaff considers himself alive only by the grace of God.

He and his family from Harbor Beach have a lot to be thankful for seven years after he attempted to take his own life. Their difficult journey has been filled with faith and love from all over.

Derek has survived 58 surgeries and gone into cardiac arrest four times in the seven years since his suicide attempt. He’s awaiting the biggest of them all: A total face transplant. But only if his family can raise $1 million for the procedure.

Derek was about as all American as kids come in high school. He had lots of friends, played football for Harbor Beach High School, had a love for the outdoors and was an all-around genuine human being.

His choice seven years ago this month changed his family’s lives forever. Derek shot himself in the head with a shotgun on May 5, 2014, and continues receiving treatment at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

Derek is living testament that something bigger and greater was looking out for him that evening.

“I woke up in the hospital and had no idea what happened or what was going on,” he said.

Derek did not suffer from any anxiety or depression seven years ago and he does not recall anything about what happened that May night. His mother said Derek was a go-getter and a high achiever who would never settle for less in his academic career.

“His first semester, he was a 4.0 student studying nursing. And his second semester was a little bit tougher, classes were a little bit tougher and we could see he was putting additional pressure on himself,” Lisa Pfaff said.

After what happened, Derek didn’t go out much for fear of being stared at or pointed at. But today, he’s moved past that fear and is hoping to undergo a life-changing face transplant that he hopes will permanently improve his appearance.

He would be just the fourth face transplant recipient at the Cleveland Clinic if his family raises $1 million.

“Our health insurance has denied his claim three times, even after we appealed it. So even at this point, to pay for his transplant, it is all out of pocket,” Lisa said.

The Pfaff’s are raising that money themselves.

Right now, Derek can’t eat and he relies on a feeding tube. He can’t drive. He has no sense of smell. With the transplant, he hopes that will all be restored over time.

“It’d be nice to sit down, have the family eat together. That’s one of my goals,” father Jerry Pfaff said. “We’d be sitting in there eating and he’d be in his chair in here. It’d just be nice to have the family together.”

Through determination, drive, perseverance and a rallying family and a community cheering him along the way, that day will come for Derek.

“Mom, dad, everyone who has helped me throughout the past seven years. They have my back,” he said.

Looking back on the night he tried to take his life seven years ago, Derek shared a piece of advice with others who might be in a similar situation. He wishes he followed the advice back in 2014.

“I didn’t talk to anyone about the issues I was going through. I wish I would have,” Derek said. “I would have felt a lot better about myself talking to my mom, dad, brothers -- get it off my chest. I kept it inside.”

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