Thetford woman, injured in 2007 lye attack by husband, receives full face transplant

At home in September, Carmen Tarleton leans against the cane she had been using to get around outside. Valley News photo by Jennifer Hauck

At home in September, Carmen Tarleton leans against the cane she had been using to get around outside. Valley News photo by Jennifer Hauck

This article is by Chris Fleisher, staff writer for the Valley News, where it was first published Feb. 28, 2013.

Thetford — Five and a half years have passed since Carmen Tarleton endured a horrendous attack that scarred 80 percent of her body, making her unrecognizable to those who knew her before.

But this month, the 44-year-old Thetford resident took yet another step forward in her long recovery when she received a rare full face transplant.

Yesterday, Tarleton’s doctors said the surgery had been a great success and expected Tarleton to recover some of the function that she lost in her face after her estranged ex-husband beat her and doused her with industrial lye in 2007.

The 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 excessive 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 in his career, 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, an organ, becomes part of her body. She is expected to regain sensation over the next few months, followed by motor function and then continued healing after a year or more, Pomahac said. The first two weeks are the most difficult as doctors guard against potential infection and as the tissues settle down 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 awaiting a donor. That donor, whose family wished to remain anonymous, was discovered 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, which took around 15 hours, 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 completely blind in one eye and has limited vision in the other. The face transplant will not affect her eyesight, Pomahac said.

Face transplants are still quite 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 the pre- and post-operative care Tarleton received is covered by a $3.4 million research grant Brigham and Women’s received from the Department of Defense. The cost for the rest 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 TV personality Phil McGraw’s Dr. Phil Foundation to help with Tarleton’s expenses.

Tarleton has been telling her story through a variety of media, including TV 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 [email protected]

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  • Wendy Wilton

    I met Carmen this summer during the campaign in Thetford. I told her I had followed her compelling story from the beginning. I am so happy for her that she is able to have this procedure. She is definitely a profile in courage and her story is a reminder of the evil of domestic abuse.

  • Luci Stephens

    Ms. Wilton is absolutely correct about domestic abuse being evil. It always injures, and sometimes kills, the victims; those that survive often bear terrible emotional, and sometimes physical, scars and limitations that will plague them throughout their lives….lest we forget, many of those victims, both direct and indirect, are children and vulnerable adults. We have now made another small step forward in our quest to build a society free of domestic violence. Congress just passed passed the Violence Against Women Act – 268 to 138. All 138 ‘NO’ votes came from the majority party in the house. As long as the attitudes supporting this reprehensible voting conduct by members of Congress persist, domestic violence and the host of other social ills that plague us will continue to enjoy the fertile ground in which they persist and spread.

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