By Elizabeth Cohen
Senior Medical Correspondent
(CNN) — After Carmen Tarleton’s estranged husband doused her with industrial-strength lye, doctors saved her life with a medically induced coma and more than 50 surgeries.
But they could do little about her scar-ravaged face.
She was so disfigured that children ran away from her. When TV news shows did stories about her, they warned that the images might be disturbing and advised viewer discretion.
For four years Tarleton lived with this reality, plus enormous amounts of pain. Then her plastic surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston made a suggestion. He’d recently done the first facial transplant in the United States, and he thought it might work for her.
At first the idea sounded a bit strange — going through life with someone else’s face? — but it didn’t take long for Tarleton to say yes, and on Wednesday, Tarleton unveiled her new face at a press conference.
She doesn’t know her deceased donor’s name but said she thinks about her every day.
“I have conversations with her and let her know how grateful I am,” Tarleton, 44, told CNN during a visit Monday to her home in Thetford, Vermont. “I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled with what I’ve got.”
Doctor: ‘We had some sleepless nights’
Dr. Bohdan Pomahac had never seen anyone like Tarleton.
The director of the burn unit at Brigham and Women’s, Pomahac assessed Tarleton’s wounds when she came in after the June 2007 attack. The lye had burned more than 80% of her body, and the burns went deep — all the way through her skin.
In 2011, Pomahac and his team made headlines when they performed the nation’s first full facial transplant on Dallas Wiens, a Texas man who got too close to a high-voltage line while at work.
Tarleton was approved for a full transplant in December of that year. It took about 14 months — an unusually long time — to find a donor, because she had so many antibodies in her immune system built up from the blood transfusions and surgeries used to treat her injuries.
She had the 15-hour transplant surgery in February, becoming the sixth person in the United States to get a full facial transplant, according to Pomahac. An animation of the procedure done by the hospital shows how surgeons removed her skin, muscles, tendons, and nerves, replacing them with those of the donor.
At first, it didn’t go so well. Tarleton’s body started to reject her new face — a rejection so strong doctors feared the transplant might fail.
“We had some sleepless nights,” Pomahac said.
But a well-tailored cocktail of anti-rejection drugs saved Tarleton’s new face.
‘He was able to see me through my scars’
Completely blind in one eye and partially blind in the other, Tarleton is still able to live on her own in her apartment in Vermont.
She did have to quit her job as a nurse. Donations she received after she appeared on the “Dr. Phil” television show have helped support her and her two daughters, who were 12 and 14 when they witnessed their stepfather attack their mother. Private insurance and Medicare have paid for her medical care.
Emotionally, Tarleton has recovered by forgiving her ex-husband, who’s now in prison, and by giving inspirational talks and publishing a book, “Overcome: Burned, Blinded, and Blessed.”
In December, she started taking piano lessons from a local teacher named Sheldon Stein. The lessons were before the transplant, when her face was so badly disfigured, but still he fell in love with her.
“He was able to see me through my scars,” she said.
Stein helped her through her February transplant and during her recovery. At first, she had hardly any control over her face, but she can now muster a bit of a smile, and her doctors say with time she should be able raise her eyebrows and make other facial expressions.
She especially looks forward to gaining the strength and coordination to kiss the man she calls “the love of my life.”
“I can’t pucker and feel yet,” she said. “But I am looking forward to that day. I know that day will come.”
CNN’s John Bonifield contributed to this report.
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