AMIENS, France (Reuters) - The French woman who underwent the world's first partial face transplant said on Monday she was grateful simply to have features "like everybody else" and had come to terms with her new appearance.
Isabelle Dinoire, 38, smiled and laughed awkwardly in her first appearance before reporters since the operation in November and spoke in slurred and laboured tones.
Despite her trauma, Dinoire said the transplant was now part of her and she did not refer to any identity crisis caused by having part of someone else's face grafted on to her.
"I can now smile and make faces so I think I have taken over the face," Dinoire told a packed news conference at Amiens hospital 110 km (70 miles) north of Paris.
She was disfigured by her own dog last May as she lay prostrate after taking medicines to cope with personal problems.
Dinoire still has fine scar lines running from her nose down to her jaw, dividing her upper face from the transplanted lower area, and does not seem to be able to close her mouth.
Doctors said Dinoire would never look like the donor because her different bone structure meant the nose, lips and chin transplant would adapt to her physical form.
They said Dinoire was over the initial shock of the attack that disfigured her, citing as proof the fact that she now faced the world without the mask she wore for several months after being mauled.
"Since the day of the operation I have had a face like everybody else," Dinoire said.
"I am now able to open my mouth and eat. Recently, I have also been able to feel my lips, my nose, my mouth," she said, adding that feeling was returning slowly and she felt no pain.
"Every day, when I left my house, I had to face up to people's stares and what they were thinking," she said.
Doctors did not show of a picture of Dinoire before the attack or before the operation, although she said she was happy when she looked in the mirror for the first time after surgery.
Asked about her plans for the future, she said: "I want to resume a normal life."
Dinoire will continue treatment and physiotherapy to regain full use of her facial muscles after the 15-hour operation, in which surgeons used tissues, muscles, arteries and veins from a dead woman to rebuild her face.
The transplant has given hope to others disfigured by burns or accidents, but it has also raised psychological and ethical issues for the recipient and the donor family.
"I now understand people with a handicap," Dinoire said, expressing hope that her operation could now help others.
Some newspapers in Britain and France have suggested Dinoire deliberately took an overdose of sleeping pills before being attacked by her dog and that the face donor had committed suicide.
Dinoire did not comment on these reports. Doctors have denied she tried to kill herself, saying she had been drowsy at the time of the dog's attack because she had taken medicine to calm her down following an argument with her daughter.
She said she had been unconscious when the dog bit her, and realised how badly she was injured only when she tried to smoke a cigarette and could not hold it between her lips.
Doctors have criticised media coverage of the case, saying much of it has been sensationalist, and repeated a plea for reporters to respect the patient's privacy.
The surgeons who conducted the operation said they had asked the Health Ministry for permission to carry out five similar transplants, but did not say whether the ministry had responded.
"She is the first but she is not going to remain unique," said Professor Jean-Michel Dubernard, a surgeon from a hospital in Lyon who was also involved in the transplant.
Doctors have said they cannot rule out rejection of Dinoire's transplant in the future but said the use of bone marrow from the donor had helped to reduce such dangers.