Elijah Stephens said he first realizedÂ he was a boy when he was six years old.Â
But it wasn’t until 22 years later, after a 14-hour operation, that he said he could finally feel like the man he knew he always was.
Under the operating room lights, surgeons worked — slicing and swapping tissue, disconnecting and reconnecting parts — all to create something completely new: a penis.
Stephens, 28, of Magnolia, recently became New Jersey’sÂ first transgender patient to undergo a phalloplasty in a female-to-male genital reassignment surgery, receiving both a penis as well as a scrotum, according to the Rutgers Center for Transgender Health.
The surgery occurred earlier this year at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston.
Stephens says he was astonished by the results.
“I was overjoyed … everything was perfect,”Â Stephens told NJ Advance Media.
Gender confirmation surgeries are on the rise with more than 3,200 performed in the U.S. in 2016, a roughly 20-percent increase since the previous year.
And, nearly 1,500 of the surgeries in 2016 were transmasculine procedures like the one Stephens had, according toÂ data from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. The increase is mainly due to greater access to the surgeries in recent years.
To give Stephens a penis, doctors tookÂ the sensory nerves ofÂ theÂ forearm tissue and attached it to the sensory nerves of the clitoris, while his scrotum was made from his labia.
The surgery was done by Dr. Jonathan Keith, founder and director of the Rutgers Center for Transgender Health, who led the 15-member surgery team.
Stephens said he had taken a chance onÂ Keith, who, despite studying under a renowned sexual reassignment surgeon in Belgium, had never performed this type of procedureÂ in practice before.
It took three years of planning, researching and staging every aspect of the procedure.
Since the operation,Â Stephens has been able to urinate standing up andÂ achieve an orgasm (which is stillÂ neurologically a female orgasm).
After the surgery, however, Stephens had to get used to some thingsÂ he didn’t expect,Â like learning how to walk and sit with thisÂ new, awkwardÂ piece of hardware now suddenlyÂ attached to his body. He said he had to get used to the weight of it. He even called upon his brothers at one point to get their input.
“I didn’t account for that,” he said, laughing.
Stephens, who began his transition in 2014, said he had battled years of depression, insecurity, relationship issues and thoughts of suicide.
There was always this gnawing feeling inside him, he says, this hatred of himself, his body.
“There were times I felt like killing myself was the only option for me,” he said.
AndÂ challenges persist even today, particularly at work where he’s encountered ridicule and been the subject of gossip from co-workers who remember him before his transition, reopening old wounds.
But, today he said he can actually look in the mirror and say he likes the person he sees.
“I love who I am,” he said. “Because I didn’t like who I was, and to see how far I’ve come; that’s what keeps me grounded.”
In several more months, Stephens said he’ll undergo another procedure to receive balloon implants that will allow him to get an erection.
“Life begins after surgery. My life didn’t start until this was done. And now I’ve hit the ground running,” he said.
Stephens started at a local aviation school last week, something he’s always wanted to do. Something he said he may never have gone for if not for the surgery.
“The future is really, really bright,” he said.Â
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