In 2014, an 18-year-old Stubblefield went to her brother's home in Oxford, Mississippi, and used his hunting rifle to try and kill herself after enduring months of chronic gastrointestinal troubles, finding out her parents were jobless and that her boyfriend was cheating on her.
At the time of the incident, her brother, Robert, had stepped out of his home to call their mother, Alesia, to discuss just how hurt and betrayed Katie was feeling. Within moments, Robert found his sister covered in blood, with his.308-caliber hunting rifle nearby. He recalled the scene to National Geographic, saying, "her face is gone."
Since then, she has undergone dozens of surgeries to improve her wellbeing. Leaving the local hospital in Mississippi, Katie was transferred to clinics in Memphis, Tennessee, and then in Cleveland, Ohio, where she would undergo the transplant surgery. The family first learned that a face transplant was a possibility for their daughter after a doctor in Memphis told them about The Cleveland Clinic.
After spending more than a year waiting for a potential donor, Katie underwent the transplant on May 4, 2017.
— HAPPY 💙 (@THOULuvKathNiel) August 14, 2018
Katie's donor was Adrea Schneider, a 31-year-old woman who'd died of a drug overdose. Sandra Bennington, Schneider's grandmother, told Nat Geo that even though she knew her granddaughter had been an organ donor, and the decision was difficult, it was the right thing to do to give Schneider's face to Katie.
"When we go to heaven, we have a new body," Bennington told the outlet. "It was hard, you know, but I thought, my goodness, here's this young girl who needs a face."
"What a wonderful thing that would be. It just seemed like it was meant to be," she added.
Schneider's heart went to a woman in her 60s, her liver to a 66-year-old man, her right lung to a 51-year-old woman, and her left lung to a 62-year-old woman. Both her kidneys and corneas were donated, and her uterus was handed over for medical research on infertility.
The transplant surgery itself involved some 11 surgeons and several other specialists. Although it began on May 4, the surgery would go into the following day, totalling some 31 hours in the operation room.
Surgeons had to replace Katie's scalp, nose, upper cheeks, jaw, forehead, eyelids, eye sockets, muscles and most of her facial nerves.
With insurance companies not covering face transplant surgeries, because they're deemed experimental, the US Department of Defense footed the bill through the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine.
The funding was contributed as part of efforts to improve treatments for US soldiers who have suffered similar injuries. "At 21, with a face severely wounded by ballistic trauma, Katie was the closest the Pentagon might ever come to a stand-in for its wounded warriors," Nat Geo writer Joanna Connors wrote.
Months after the surgery, Katie was discharged from The Cleveland Clinic on August 1, 2017. She is currently taking immunosuppressive drugs to prevent her immune system from rejecting the transplant.
"Whatever you got going on in your life, it's only temporary. Whether it's something with relationships or with a friendship, there's always someone else you can talk to," Katie told the publication. "I learned that you pretty much can tell your parents anything, and your parents — they still — they love you."
"Life is precious. It truly is precious. Life is an amazing gift, and I'm thankful to have a second chance to live my life," she added.
Katie plans to take online college courses for the time being before taking up a career in counseling and motivational speaking.
According to the CDC, 17.2 percent of high school students in the US seriously considered killing themselves in 2017. In many cases, the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that family issues, body image and school and social life played roles in teens considering suicide.
Katie was the third person to undergo a face transplant at The Cleveland Clinic and one of 40 worldwide. She is the youngest person to undergo such a surgery in the US, according to Nat Geo.
For two years, staffers from National Geographic followed the Stubblefields throughout their daily lives, recording Katie's journey. Their work was published Tuesday for the magazine's September issue.