A mother-of-two whose estranged husband poured industrial-strength Lye over her in a horrific case of domestic abuse has received a face transplant.
Carmen Tarleton, 44, is thrilled with her new appearance, saying in a statement today: ‘My spirits are high and I feel really good and happy.’
More than two dozen doctors at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital worked for 15 hours earlier this month to give the disfigured Vermont woman new facial skin, including neck, nose, lips, facial muscles arteries and nerves.
‘This is a momentous opportunity in my life and I want to convey to my donors family what a great gift I’ve been given,’ Tarleton said. ‘I will do everything in my power to ensure a successful outcome.’
Tarleton’s life-changing face transplant is the fifth the Boston hospital has performed.
‘I think she looks amazing, but I’m biased,’ lead surgeon Dr. Bohdan Pomahac told reporters at a press conference today. The hospital hasn’t released images of Tarleton’s new appearance.
He said the patient was ‘probably out of the woods’ in terms of immediate vascular problems that could cause the whole face not to take after the dicey surgery.
Tarleton was doused in Lye by her former husband Herb Rogers in 2007 in a frightening case of domestic violence. She suffered chemical burns over 80 per cent of her body and her face was completely disfigured.
Pomahac said the medical team were equally happy and stressed after the operation.
‘Everyday we enjoy walking by her and seeing her getting better but we are also thinking constantly what could go wrong,’ he said. ‘There is no eureka moment, it’s really a few months later when the return of function comes and the patient is doing well and we are beyond most of the risks.’
The doctor said Tarleton can expect to regain almost full functionality in her face.
‘She will not be completely normal but what we will see is 80 per cent of normal function, 75 per cent,’ he said. ‘It depends on the patient, and she still had residual movement… so she should have a better result than someone who had completely nothing.’
But he said her recovery would take time.
‘Return of sensation will take about three months, motor function about 3-6 months and she’ll have a full return of functionality after a year or so. Slow improvements typically continue afterwards as well.’
Tarleton, who underwent 38 surgeries in the first 90 days since the attack, and 17 since then, said she looked forward to moving on with her life, now she has a more normal appearance, and putting the traumatic event behind her.
‘I feel great appreciation and gratitude for the tremendous gift I’ve been given,’ she said in the statement read out today by her sister.
‘I want to thank everyone at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Their focus and attention is remarkable… I have been so touched and so grateful for all that the community locally and globally have done for me.
‘I also want to acknowledge my family for their support and love. My sister and mother have been especially dedicated to my care and my daughters…
‘We are all excited to move into a new chapter of our lives together.’
A statement read out on behalf of the family of Tarleton’s female donor said they believed their loved one’s spirit lived on in the woman she’d helped.
‘While we are heartbroken at the loss of our beloved mother, daughter and wife… she has given the gift of life to four people,’ the statement from the anonymous donor’s family read.
‘Hers was a life of laughter and love and she had a smile that would brighten your day. Our loved one held fast to the belief that at the beginning and end of the day we are all family.’
Dr Pomahac said, despite taking her face, Tarleton hasn’t assumed the appearance of her donor, but she doesn’t much resemble the woman she used to be either.
‘There is really no transfer of appearance from donor to recipient,’ he told reporters.
‘It is really a summation of skeletal (shape) and facial (features) and every one of us is different. However, she probably won’t look a lot like she used to.’
Pomahac added: ‘The improvement is incredible.’
Tarleton remains blind in one eye. Doctors will assess the improvement in motor function around her eye in about six months to determine how much work needs to be done to regain the function of her eyelids.
The mother of two wrote a book about her experience that describes her recovery.
In it she claims that she wouldn’t take back what happened to her, insisting she is ‘more blessed’ now than she was before Rodgers broke into her home and unleashed his anger.
‘When life gives you a big negative situation like I’d been through, if you can get through that, you can really find all of the blessings and all of the positive things that can come out of that,’ she said.
‘And I found so much that I would not go back. I’m so much more blessed than I was then.’
While she lay in a hospital bed after surviving what doctors called ‘the most horrific injury a human being could suffer,’ Tarleton decided it did not have to ruin the rest of her life.
She had vivid dreams, including one where dozens of doors stretched around her and a voice said ‘Life is a choice,’ before the words appeared one at a time in white across a dark movie screen: LIFE IS A CHOICE.
Tarleton carried that lesson with her through her ongoing, daunting and remarkable recovery from the attack, which also saw Rodgers beat her with a baseball bat.
Tarleton’s book, to be published in March, is called ‘Overcome: Burned, Blinded and Blessed,’ and she hopes it will speak to everyone, not just victims of abuse.
‘I think I can help a whole bunch of people, not just domestic violence (victims),’ said the woman, who continues to undergo surgeries. ‘I think I can help a whole bunch of people wherever you are in your life.’
The book starts with Tarleton’s decision at 28 to move across the country from her native Vermont to Los Angeles, with her two children in tow, to work as a nurse at a UCLA hospital.
There she met Rodgers, whom she eventually married. The family moved back to Thetford, where her marriage started to unravel — in part over Rodgers’ dishonesty, she writes.
Tarleton recalls what she now says was a premonition. One evening when she was about to leave for her night shift at the hospital, her 12-year-old daughter was sobbing in her bedroom. When she asked what was wrong, her daughter said,
‘Something really, really bad is going to happen to you.’
Eight months later, it did. Rodgers is serving a minimum of 30 years in prison for the June 2007 attack.
When she set out to write the book three years later with only limited vision in one eye, she stalled when it came time to explain what Rodgers had done to her that night. She had to coach herself through it.
‘Alone at my magnifying machine, I felt physically ill with what I was doing,’ she wrote.
‘The experience of reliving that night, trying to capture every detail as vividly as I remembered it, was sickening. Halfway through, I let my pen drop and rushed to my bedroom, the edges of my limited vision blackening.’
It took her two days to write it. It was scary, but it was what she wanted to do, she said. She talked out the rest of the book and recorded it. She hired Writers of the Round Table Press to write it all down, including dialogue she had recalled.
‘I was paying attention, because some of it I couldn’t forget if I wanted to,’ she said.
She writes about facing Rodgers in court, how she dealt with being blind and disfigured, her pain, the help she has received from her community, family and friends, and how she came to forgive the man who maimed her so she could get on with her own life.
‘That’s where I feel people get stuck because we don’t have a segment of our society that says just because this terrible thing happened to you it doesn’t have to ruin the rest of your life,’ she said. ‘And I want to be the example of that because it doesn’t.’
Publishing the book was a no-brainer for Writers of the Round Table Press, said vice president David Cohen.
‘Taking that kind of experience and turning that energy into something positive and wanting to go out there and effect change with as much as she had to overcome, to me was just striking,’ Cohen said.
She has had several recent surgeries to install a catheter in her chest and was sick last winter with hyperthyroidism.
She has plans to write other books and has started a blog on the book’s website, in a bid to share her positive attitude with others.