Marinda Righter hugs Carmen during the news conference
Imagine looking into a mirror and seeing yourself for the first time. For 44-year-old Carmen Tarleton, that happened in February.
"It didn't give me a sense of boy, this isn't my face, I have another woman's face on my head. I didn't have any of that," she said. "It was just boy, I look great. This is going to be good. And I just left it like that."
The face transplant surgery was performed at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. It's just the fifth in the hospital's history. For Tarleton, it gives her a new look and a lot less pain. Scar tissue from 55 surgeries hindered her ability to properly swallow, and significantly decreased mobility in her neck. But that's changed.
Reporter Adam Sullivan: Mostly the neck or what?
Carmen Tarleton: Mostly the neck and I just feel that I can move around better.
Tarleton was attacked in her Thetford home in the summer of 2007. Her estranged husband doused her with industrial lye, burning 80 percent of her body. The brutal domestic assault left Tarleton permanently disfigured.
"After being attacked and having such a scarred face, I couldn't event recognize myself," she said. "To have all these options and opportunities that I never thought would even exist, just in a few short years, to come back and be comfortable and starting looking like everyone else again, it's just really special."
The lead surgeon on the transplant team, Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, spoke at a news conference Wednesday, as Tarleton showed the new Carmen to the rest of the world.
"As with other transplant recipients, Carmen will remain on anti-rejection medication for the rest of her life and she will likely undergo several small follow up surgical procedures," Pomahac said. "Over the next three to six months, Carmen can expect to gain more control over the muscles in her face."
The donor's daughter, Marinda Righter, also addressed the packed room. Her mom, Cheryl Denelli-Righter, died from a sudden stroke.
"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 that the universe conspired somehow to bring about this beautiful union."
Righter and Tarleton first met just a day earlier, but they embraced as if they have known each other their entire lives.
"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.
Carmen Tarleton: Isn't she beautiful?
Adam Sullivan: What are your thoughts toward her and her family?
Carmen Tarleton: Oh my, that whole situation has just been heaven-sent. It's such a good feeling, a thing to have happen right before this. She's a beautiful person; I know her mother was, as well. And it is just great to meet her and hopefully have her in my life, as well.
A life that was changed in an instant by tragedy and continues to evolve. And this time, the world is watching.
Adam Sullivan: You are pretty much on an international stage right now, how are you doing with that? Is it a lot of pressure?
Carmen Tarleton: I think once it happens it is much easier. The last couple of days have been a little heavy, like I can't get out of my own head. But now that it has happened, it is much easier.
And for Tarleton, there is more good news-- a new friend to keep her company on her continued journey. Though this mom of two says ultimately, overcoming life's obstacles is a strength that must come from within.
Carmen Tarleton: Don't let tragedy keep you down and keep you unhealthy, and all of that. It's really a choice, it's really a choice.
Adam Sullivan: How do you do it, though?
Carmen Tarleton: Well, I think everybody has to find their own way, and everyone has to start where they start from. It doesn't matter where you start from, but everybody has a different story, everybody has been injured in different kinds of ways, so I think everybody has got to do it individually.
Tarleton returned to Vermont Wednesday afternoon, but, as her surgeon said, she will be making many trips back to Boston in the months and likely years ahead.
Anchor Darren Perron: Adam, there was lots of media there, but Carmen only talked to you, exclusively. You've gotten to know Carmen pretty well over the last six years, covering her story throughout this whole ordeal. What was it like to see her today at this point in her journey?
Reporter Adam Sullivan: In a word-- Amazing. Just to see her doing so well. I met Carmen just months after that attack and, as you said, we have followed her story over the years. In the process we have become friends. My son has met her and I have met Carmen's kids as well. As a journalist, sometimes covering a story turns into something much bigger. I would say that is one of those times.
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