‘A great way to move forward': Thetford’s Carmen Tarleton reveals new face

Carmen Tarleton gets a kiss from Marinda Righter, the daughter of the donor, during yesterday’s news conference in Boston. Valley News photo by  Jennifer Hauck

Carmen Tarleton gets a kiss from Marinda Righter, the daughter of the donor, during yesterday’s news conference in Boston. Valley News photo by Jennifer Hauck

Editor’s note: This story is by Chris Fleisher, staff writer at the Valley News, where it was first published Thursday, May 2, 2013.

Boston — The freckled skin on Carmen Tarleton’s face was puffy and her eyes and lips sagged a little, but the image that the 44-year-old Thetford resident presented yesterday was one of grace and hope.

Nearly six years have passed since she endured a vicious attack that scarred 80 percent of her body. The ensuing surgeries — 55 in all — still left her in pain, as the scar tissue around her neck made it difficult for her to turn her head, control her lips or lift her chin.

But yesterday, more than two months after receiving a full face transplant, Tarleton made her first public appearance to show the world just how far she had come.

“I have been on this incredible journey for the last six years,” Tarleton said before dozens of reporters at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “What a great way to move forward to what is in store for me now.”

It was a dramatic milestone for Tarleton, who has endured a long and painful recovery since her estranged husband beat her and doused her with industrial lye. Tarleton later divorced Herbert Rodgers, who is serving a minimum 30 years in prison for the June 2007 attack. He is currently incarcerated at a facility in Beattyville, Ky.

To read “Against the Odds,” the five-part series that the Valley News published in 2009 about Tarleton’s recovery, click here.

Tarleton was the fifth full face transplant at the hospital and among the most complex cases that Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, director of plastic surgery transplantation at Brigham, had ever seen. In performing Tarleton’s transplant, Pomahac led a team of more than 30 surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses in the 15-hour procedure.

Tarleton arrived at yesterday’s news conference wearing a sunflower pinned to her pink button down shirt and a scarf wrapped around her head. She spoke through lips that appeared frozen, yet functional. Her skin had little feeling, she said, though there was some tingling in certain areas. Over the next few months, Tarleton will regain more control over the muscles in her face and sensation will return in six months to a year, Pomahac said. She remains legally blind, though she has some limited vision.

Perhaps most importantly, the pain in her neck had subsided. It was Tarleton’s greatest hope for the surgery, and yesterday she said she got her wish.

“My hopes were exactly what I have today,” Tarleton said. “My hopes were to have the pain in my neck relieved and it was instantly when I woke up.”

Tarleton has written a book about her experience called “Overcome: Burned, Blinded, and Blessed.” Her story also has been featured on the syndicated television show, “The Doctors.” The episode about her transplant aired yesterday. As Tarleton spoke yesterday, the daughter of the woman whose face had been donated to Tarleton sat nearby. That donor, Cheryl Denelli Righter, of North Adams, Mass., died of a massive stroke on Feb. 13. She was 56.

“A dyed-in-the-wool hippie with a passion for social justice and even greater passion for song and dance,” Cheryl Righter believed that everything and everyone on Earth were connected, said her daughter Marinda Righter.

Cheryl Righter endured tragedy in her own life, including the death of her husband and Marinda’s father, Tom, in 1984. Yet Cheryl Righter continued to live a “selfless life,” her daughter said.

Marinda Righter said that after meeting Tarleton for the first time Tuesday, she felt a profound joy, as she literally was able to see her mother’s features return to life.

“I get to feel my mother’s skin again, I get to see my mother’s freckles, and through you, I get to see my mother live on,” Righter said. “This is truly a blessing.”

It was fitting that, through organ donations, her mother was able to continue to help others even after her death, Marinda Righter said. At least five people received organs from Cheryl Righter, including Tarleton.

“I think Carmen and my mother are kindred spirits,” Marinda Righter said. “I don’t know how to put it into words, but I feel like the universe conspired somehow to bring about this beautiful union of these two women who never met but shall ever be intertwined.

“I am sure my mother somehow picked Carmen. They are both mothers, they are both survivors and they are both beacons of light.”

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.

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. And finding donors remains a significant challenge. Even when there are donors, doctors must find an appropriate match in sex and skin tone for the recipient.

Tarleton’s face transplant surgery and 90 days of post-operative care is covered under a $3.4 million research grant Brigham and Women’s received from the Department of Defense. A charitable fund has been set up by television personality Phil McGraw’s Dr. Phil Foundation to help with Tarleton’s expenses — McGraw’s son, Jay McGraw, is executive producer of “The Doctors.”

Throughout the news conference, Marinda Righter sat beside Tarleton’s boyfriend, Sheldon Stein, a musician from North Haverhill who works at Blue Mountain Guitar Center in West Lebanon.

Though she did not mention her attacker by name, Tarleton spoke of forgiveness and her decision to learn and move on from her horrific experience. She drew a connection between her personal situation and the victims of the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon.

“Walking around with hate or misery in your heart is a choice and we all can find our way to happiness,” Tarleton said. “I especially hope that the survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings will find the strength to move on from the senseless violence they have endured. I know from my own experience that it is possible.”

Marinda Righter and Tarleton made no mention of whether they would stay in touch after yesterday, but before departing, Righter made sure to show Tarleton affection. She walked behind the table where Tarleton sat, wrapped her hand around Tarleton’s back and leaned in to kiss the freckled cheek that once belonged to her mother.

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or [email protected] The Associated Press contributed to this story.

WEB EXTRAS

To read “Against the Odds,” the five-part series that the Valley News published in 2009 about Tarleton’s recovery, click here.

The Brigham and Women’s Hospital page on Tarleton is available at this link.

Marinda Righter made a tribute video to her mother, Cheryl Denelli Righter, who died from a stroke in February and whose face was donated to Carmen Tarleton. View the video here.

Comments

  1. Steven Farnham :

    I do not know how one who has been through all this could have even the minutest shred of optimism intact. Yet, from the story, it would appear that Ms. Tarleton has boat loads of it. What an amazing woman. What can one say?

    Happy Mothers’ Day?

    Indeed, and many more to come.

  2. Walter Carpenter :

    I am incredulous too at how after all she has been through that her optimism is still so “intact.”

  3. Wendy Wilton :

    I met Carmen last fall in Thetford. What an example of courage. All the best to her for a speedy recovery and thank you to the doctors who did this incredible work.

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