Mom Fights for Son’s Face Transplant After He Survives Suicide Attempt: 'My Heart Hurts for Him'

Warning: This story contains graphic details.

A Michigan mom experienced the unimaginable when her son hurt himself — and now she's pleading for help to give him a second chance at life.

Lisa Pfaff tells PEOPLE she still vividly remembers the traumatic night in March 2014 that her family's life was forever changed.

Her son Derek, then 19, was home from college on spring break when he attempted suicide, shooting himself in the face outside his Harbor Beach home.

"I completely lost my mind," says Lisa. "It's very heart-wrenching. I truly believed he was going to die that night."

Since then, Derek, now 26, has undergone 58 facial reconstructive surgeries. Though he is still on a feeding machine and has a tracheostomy to help him breathe, he has mostly recovered from the incident and recently qualified for a face transplant.

However, because the procedure is deemed an "experimental surgery," Lisa says her insurance has denied their request to cover the transplant and the anti-rejection medication.

"It's been seven years, and the easiest way to describe it is you're going down a very dark tunnel, and you don't see any light," says the mom of five, who set up a GoFundMe page to help raise money for her son's procedure.

"You take one step forward and then something doesn't go right, and we take five steps backward," she adds. "My heart hurts for him. As a mother, you want to fix it for your children, and there's nothing that I can do right now besides love and support him."

Prior to Derek's nightmare, Lisa says her son was the "all-American kid."

"He was an avid football player, he was an all-state running back… he had a passion for people," she explains. "He's always been very giving and very caring about others."

But Lisa says Derek started to put "a lot of pressure on himself" in college while pursuing a degree in nursing.

"He always [wanted to] be the best he could be," she explains. "And the second semester of college came around. The classes were harder and I could see that he was putting more and more pressure on himself."

The night before the incident, Lisa says things seemed normal, and Derek, who had just returned home from a skiing trip, asked to have friends over.

Lisa says she went to check on Derek as her husband Jerry was leaving for work around 1:45 a.m.. She quickly noticed that he was not in his bedroom or the basement, but his keys and wallet were still on the counter.

Jerry eventually checked outside, where he found Derek "lying in a pile of red snow," according to the GoFundMe.

The teen was rushed to Hurley Medical Center in Flint and later transferred to Henry Ford in Detroit, where he was put on life support and into a medically induced coma, the fundraiser states.

"He was not brain dead, as originally thought, and the goal was to keep him alive," Lisa wrote on the GoFundMe. "He had 28 bags and tubes going in and out of him. His brain was swollen, and we had no idea what his quality of life would be if he survived."

But Derek beat the odds, and by June of that year, he was cleared to go home.

"He walked out of the hospital with his head held tall and high less than three months later," she says. "The head rehabilitation person said to us, 'He's years ahead of where he should be. It's absolutely miracle he's able to do this.'"

Since then, Lisa says it's been a "huge adjustment for our family," but they've never wavered in their support for Derek.

"This could either make your family stronger or literally fall apart," Lisa says. "And everybody in our family has just really stepped up and rallied around Derek. It was just unconditional love and support."

Today, Derek — who initially received mental health counseling in the hospital — is doing great, both physically and mentally, according to his mom.

"I do not worry about him having suicidal thoughts. I am 100% confident he would never do it again," Lisa says, adding that her son even told her after the incident, "I would never do that to myself."

"He's very committed to helping others and sharing his story. He's overcome all of it and he's my hero," she adds.

Though Lisa previously kept Derek's story private, she says his optimistic outlook even after being denied three times by the insurance company was what inspired her to recently start the GoFundMe.

"I've really shielded him and protected him from the world. He wasn't comfortable going out in public and I feel like I put this protective bubble around him," she says. "But 2021 came and he just said, 'This is the time.'"

So far, the page has raised over $75,000 of its $1 million goal — all of which the mom says will go towards a transplant that will hopefully allow him to eat and breathe on his own again.

"It's not going to change who he is on the inside. But on the outside, he's going to be able to really impact so many others," Lisa says. "He's young. I want him to be able to get married and have a family and have a face where people aren't always looking at him, and really get a second chance at life."

While it's been a difficult journey, Lisa hopes people will learn from his story.

"I always ask, 'Why our family?' And then I look at how strong our family has become and I'm like, 'This is why,'" she explains. "If we can save one family from going through what our family has lived through the last seven years, then that's what he and I both want."

"Don't carry the weight on your shoulders alone. Because even if you think people don't care, people do," she says. "I never would have thought Derek would have done this… and the fact that it did happen to him, I don't want it to happen to anyone else."

Those interested in donating to Derek's GoFundMe page can do so here.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.


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