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Lye attack victim gets new face in 15-hour surgery

For the past six years Carmen Blandin Tarleton, a 44-year-old registered nurse and mother of two from Thetford, Vt., has been living with a face horribly disfigured by industrial strength lye that was squirted on her by her estranged husband. The attack in June of 2007 left burns on more than 80 percent of Tarleton’s body.

Carmen Blandin Tarleton before the attack and in July 2011, prior to face transplant surgery.

Earlier this month Tarleton became the fifth person to receive a full face transplant at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. During the 15-hour operation that involved more than 30 physicians, nurses, anesthesiologists and technicians, surgeons transplanted a donor’s neck, nose, lips, facial muscles, arteries and nerves.

“They were among the worst injuries I’ve seen in my entire career,” Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, director of Plastic Surgery Transplantation, Brigham and Women's Hospital, said at a Wednesday news conference at the Boston hospital. “She was unrecognizable to anyone who knew her. But she was a fighter, and fight she did.”

The surgery was more extensive than the hospital's previous procedures -- including the face transplant operation for chimp attack victim Charla Nash -- because not only was the donor’s face attached, but also her neck, doctors explained.

Tarleton is still recovering and did not attend the hospital event. But in a blog post published Wednesday, she wrote: “I could never have imagined the overwhelming feelings I encountered after my surgery. I could freely move my head from side to side without the usual scar discomfort I have felt for almost six years now. I cried with such a deep appreciation for the persons truly responsible for giving me this gift: this new physical freedom.”

Tarleton was in the process of being divorced from her husband, Herbert Rodgers, when he broke into her home, fractured her skull and broke an arm, according to the Associated Press. He then poured a squeeze bottle filled with lye over her entire body. After being airlifted to the hospital, doctors weren’t sure she would survive her injuries.

Tarleton was in a medically induced coma for three months, during which she received 38 surgeries to try to repair the damage from the lye. Since then there have been another 17.

But even after those surgeries, Tarleton was still unable to control the muscles in her mouth and lips which led to a constant stream of drool. The scarring on her neck blocked her from turning her head. She was left blind in one eye, but can see well enough through the other to read, Pomahac said.

Because of all the prior surgeries and skin grafts, Tarleton’s case presented more complications than other recent transplants. There have been 26 face transplant surgeries worldwide, with seven performed in the United States, said Dr. Daniel Alam, section head for plastic and reconstructive surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. Alam also participated in Charla Nash's procedure.

Tarleton is almost past the point where doctors worry that the face might be rejected by her body, Pomahac said. In the coming weeks, the nerves will start to reconnect and she may regain some sensation.

Tarleton’s sister Kesstan Blandin read a statement from Tarleton at the news conference Wednesday: “I feel great appreciation and gratitude for the tremendous gift that had been given to me that will greatly improve my quality of life. My spirits are high and I have tremendous optimism I want to convey to the donor family what a great gift has been given to me.”

Although the donor’s identity has not been revealed, the family responded: “While we are heartbroken at the loss of a mother, sister and friend, we are comforted that she chose to give the gift of life,” according to a statement read by Richard Luskin, CEO of the New England Organ Bank. “We believe her spirit will live on by the human connections she made in life, including the four she never met. Now their lives are intertwined.”

In 2009, her ex-husband Rodgers was convicted in Vermont for the attack and sentenced to a 30-70 year prison term.

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Va. man gets extensive face transplant after gun accident