Carmen Tarleton has undergone a successful second face transplant, making her the first person to ever undergo the surgery twice.
Thanks to an organ donor, Ms Tarleton got to thank the family recently over a video chat.
Ms Tarleton’s life changed forever in 2007 when her ex-husband broke into her home and hit her with a baseball bat, spraying her with a chemical called lye.
After the attack, the nurse was left disfigured, blind in one eye and legally blind in the other.
The survivor had her first face transplant in 2013, a relatively new procedure. Unfortunately, her body eventually rejected it.
“When my first face transplant failed, I basically went back to looking disfigured,” she said. “I didn’t have eyelids anymore. I lost my lips.”
Ms Tarleton decided to go through the process once again, after having 73 reconstructive surgeries.
“I had said to (my doctor), ‘If I’m a candidate, I want another chance,’” she recalled.
The second transplants took a team of 40 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston about 20 hours over two days.
The second time around, Ms Tarleton’s immune system was less sensitive, making the surgery less risky.
Her plastic surgeon, Dr Bohdan Pomahac did anticipate a challenge though. He was concerned of a possible rejection again.
“It’s always complicated,” Mr Pomhac said. “I think the second time is a little worse in some ways because we’re dealing with a lot of unknowns again.”
Ms Tarleton’s second face transplant came from donor Casey Harrington Labrie.
Ms Harrington Labrie suffered from a heroin addiction, dying at the age of 36 from a fentanyl overdose.
“We were incredibly lucky and found by pure luck a donor that had a lot of characteristics common with Carmen’s own body, something that you would hope for a sibling to have,” Mr Pomahac said.
Ms Harrington Labrie’s organs saved five lives, but donating her face was an initial point of contention for her family.
“Our initial emotion was, ‘No. That’s not gonna be OK. We can’t live with that,’” her sister-in-law Bobbi Sue Harrington said. “The more research we did (on) recipients and how their lives had changed, the better we felt about it.
“It was a godsend for us as a family,” she added. “It gave us hope in what would otherwise appear to be a completely hopeless time, especially for (Casey’s) daughter.”
Ms Tarleton had the opportunity to thank Ms Harrington Labrie’s family recently over a video chat.
“In the most difficult time, you gave me the biggest gift anybody could have given me,” Ms Tarleton said.
It has been seven months since the second transplant, and Ms Tarleton says she is “very happy”. Everything on her face beside one ear was donated.
“This is my face. It was given to me. It’s not the original face I was born with, but it’s my face. And every time I look in the mirror, I think of Casey,” she said.
“My key to that success is not focusing on negative things,” she continued. “It’s much easier to complain, to … talk about amongst ourselves what doesn’t work. … If I stayed there, I would be what society said I would be. ‘You’re gonna be miserable, you’re disabled, you’re blind, you’re dependent. You’re gonna have post-traumatic stress disorder, you’re gonna be depressed.’”
“I didn’t listen to any of that. You know why? I didn’t want any of that. I focused on what I was gonna do now,” she added.
She believes the transplant has “extended [her life] greatly.”
“I had to step into that, and to step into that, you need to find your confidence. You need to find your stability. You need to find your self-worth,” she said. “Every week, I get better and better. … I’m excited to see what life’s gonna bring me now. I have a lot of patience. When I’m ready, things will happen. And they’re already happening.”