The Beauty of Courage: Thetford’s Carmen Tarleton Receives Full Face Transplant
Surgeons and Brigham and Women’s Hospital personnel prepare Carmen Tarleton for face transplant surgery. Tarleton, who was burned by lye during an attack in 2007, was the fourth patient to receive a full face transplant at the hospital. The face transplant team began their surgical procedures shortly before 6 a.m. and finished about 11 p.m. (Lightchaser Photography - J. Kiely Jr.)
“This greatly improves my quality of life and physical comfort level.
My spirits are high, I feel really good and happy.” -- Carmen Tarleton (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
Dr. Bodhan Pomahac, at podium, with his surgical team, speaks yesterday to reporters regarding the face transplant earlier this month of Carmen Tarleton, pictured left, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. (Associated Press - Charles Krupa)
This undated photograph provided by the Brigham and Women's Hospital shows face transplant patient Carmen Blandin Tarleton, right, with her sister Kesstan Blandin, before she was attacked.
Thetford — Five-and-a-half years have passed since Carmen Tarleton endured a horrendous attack that scarred 80 percent of her body, leaving her appearance unrecognizable to those who knew her before.
This month, the 44-year-old Thetford resident took another step forward in her recovery when she received a full face transplant.
Yesterday, Tarleton’s doctors said the surgery had been a great success and that they expected Tarleton to recover some of the facial function that she lost after her estranged husband beat her and doused her with industrial lye in 2007.
The 15-hour transplant involved her neck, nose, lips, facial muscles, arteries and nerves, and should improve Tarleton’s ability to use her mouth and alleviate the pain in her neck caused by scarring, according to Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, director of plastic surgery transplantation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where the procedure was done.
Pomahac said Tarleton’s injures were the worst he’d seen, which made the progress she’s made since all the more remarkable.
“She is without a doubt one of the most inspirational people I have met,” he said during a news conference yesterday.
Tarleton probably will not look the same as she did before the attack, Pomahac said, nor will she look like her donor. The hospital did not release any photographs of her following the surgery, but Pomahac said he is optimistic about her chances to become more active and publicly engaged than previously.
“I don’t think it’s completely excluded that she could return to some work or activity,” he said.
Tarleton’s recovery could take more than a year as her new face becomes part of her body. She is expected to regain sensation over the next few months, followed by motor function and then continued healing, Pomahac said, although doctors are uncertain if full motor function or full sensation will ever be achieved. The first two weeks are the most difficult as doctors guard against potential infection and as the tissues settle and nerves regrow. So far, everything has gone well, Pomahac said.
Doctors began evaluating Tarleton, a registered nurse and mother of two, for a face transplant two years ago and approved her for the procedure in December 2011. She has since been waiting for a donor. That donor, whose family wished to remain anonymous, was found earlier this month.
A team of more than 30 physicians, nurses, anesthesiologists and technicians at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston was involved in the transplant, said Pomahac.
Tarleton is still recovering and was not available for yesterday’s news conference, though she prepared a statement that was read by her sister, Kesstan Blandin. Tarleton called the transplant a “momentous opportunity” and thanked her physicians, her family, the donor’s family and the people both locally and around the world who had supported her.
“I feel great appreciation and gratitude for the tremendous gift that I’ve been given,” she said in the statement. “This greatly improves my quality of life and physical comfort level. My spirits are high, I feel really good and happy.”
Tarleton has undergone 55 surgeries since 2007, many to repair her neck, which was stiffened by scar tissue, Pomahac said. She is blind in one eye and has limited vision in the other. The face transplant will not affect her eyesight, Pomahac said. (Read the Valley News’ multipart series on Carmen Tarleton at www.vnews.com/againstallodds)
Face transplants are still rare. Since 2005, more than 20 patients around the world have received full or partial face transplants, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Tarleton is the fifth face transplant performed by Brigham and Women’s.
Finding donors remains a significant challenge for all organ transplants, said Richard Luskin, CEO of the New England Organ Bank. Even once a donor is found, doctors must find an appropriate match in sex and skin tone for the recipient.
Yesterday, Luskin read a statement from the family of the woman whose face was transplanted onto Tarleton. Three other people also received organs from that same donor, and Luskin said the family believed that the donor’s spirit would “live on through the human connections she made in life, including the four people who she never met yet whose lives are now intertwined with her own.”
The face transplant surgery and 90 days of post-operative care for Tarleton is covered under a $3.4 million research grant Brigham and Women’s received from the Department of Defense. The cost for the remainder of her care was negotiated before surgery, Pomahac said, though he did not say how much it would be. A charitable fund has been set up by television personality Phil McGraw’s Dr. Phil Foundation to help with Tarleton’s expenses.
Tarleton has been telling her story through a variety of media outlets, including television and newspaper coverage, as well as on the daytime medical talk show The Doctors, of which Phil McGraw’s son, Jay McGraw, is an executive producer. She has also written a book called Overcome: Burned, Blinded and Blessed.
Tarleton’s ex-husband, 57-year-old Herbert Rodgers, is serving a minimum of 30 years in prison for the June 2007 attack. He is currently incarcerated at a facility in Beattyville, Ky.
Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Friday, March 1 edition of the Valley News.
Carmen Tarleton and her then-husband, Herbert Rodgers, were estranged when he attacked her in 2007. They later divorced. A story in yesterday's Valley News was unclear on that point.