Face transplant recipient Carmen Blandin Tarleton speaks at a news conference at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts May 1, 2013.
Almost three months after a undergoing a full face transplant, Carmen Blandin Tarleton, the 44-year-old Vermont registered nurse horribly disfigured when her estranged husband squirted industrial strength lye all over her body, stroked her new chin with her hand and called the surgery a "wonderful gift."
Tarleton revealed her new face – reconstructed in a 15-hour operation that transplanted a donor’s neck, nose, lips, facial muscles, nerves and tendons – Wednesday at a news conference at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Already the new tissue is molding itself to her bone structure, giving her a remarkably normal appearance. There is a barely perceptible droop on the left side, which doctors say may disappear as the newly connected nerves continue to grow. Her right eye, which was completely blinded, remains shut, while her left eye is partially open -- allowing her to see a blurry version of the world. She is legally blind.
“I’ve been on this incredible journey for the last six years,” Tarleton said Wednesday, reading from her iPad on a program that allows her to see text. “The donor and her family have given me a tremendous gift making that is making a significant difference in my quality of life at the daily level. They have relieved a significant amount of my pain and discomfort and for that I am forever grateful.”
In an unusual turn, Tarleton met the family of the donor, Cheryl Denelli Righter, whose face and organs were donated to five recipients after she suffered a sudden stroke early in early February 2013.
Righter's daughter, Marinda Righter, hugged and kissed Tarleton. “You’re beautiful,” she told Tarleton. “Yesterday after meeting you, Carmen, for the first time in a long time I felt overjoyed. For the first time I got to feel my mother’s skin, to see my mother’s freckles. And through you I get to see my mother live on.”
The surgery was performed in early February, six years after suffering what Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, director of Plastic Surgery Transplantation at Brigham and Women’s Transplantation called “some of the worst injuries I've ever seen.” She was burned over more than 80 percent of her body. Scar tissue in her mouth meant she couldn't control her lips, causing constant drooling. Scars on her neck prevented her from turning side to side.
After undergoing 55 operations over the past five years, a team of more than 30 surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses participated in the transplant surgery.
Carmen Blandin Tarleton before the attack and in July 2011, prior to face transplant surgery.
Tarleton is the fifth person to receive a full face transplant at the Boston hospital. There have been 26 face transplant surgeries worldwide, seven in the United States, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
About 90 percent of transplant patients experience an episode of rejection in the first year, Pomahac said. “Then it quiets down,” he added. “But by three years all of them have had an episode of rejection.”
Tarleton might have lost her new face if the medical team hadn’t taken a big gamble during recovery. In March, the transplanted face began to swell and redden, a clear sign that her body was rejecting it. Doctors feared they might have to remove the transplanted tissue, returning her damaged face to the way it was before surgery.
“It started with fairly massive swelling and continued with redness to the point that we worried that she might not be getting enough blood circulating to the face,” Pomahac told NBCNews.com.
“I told her we were at the end of our rope and there was not much else we could do,” Pomahac said. “She said, ‘I’ve gone too far, I’m not going back.’ That shocked me. She didn’t say it directly, but the implication was, ‘I’d rather die than have you take it off.
Pomahac and his colleagues considered a medication that would completely suppress Tarleton’s immune system in order to stop the tissue rejection. It would also put her at great risk for infection – for a full 30 to 60 days.
She was eventually given a one-quarter dose of the drug and her blood was run through a machine that continuously removed antibodies from it, in a process similar to dialysis.
Eventually, Tarleton’s immune system stopped attacking the new face and she’s now doing well. She'll remain on anti-rejection medications for the rest of her life.
While calling the surgery a "new beginning," Tarleton also spoke of the challenges facing the victims of the Boston marathon bombings and said she was "sending them thoughts of healing and wellness."
"There is a lot to learn in horrific events," she said. "I want others to know that they need not give up on healing themselves when tragedy strikes; instead they can make a choice to find the good and allow that to help them heal."
A charitable fund has been set up to help Tarleton with her expenses. For more information, go to Carmen's Fund.