Face transplant recipient Carmen Blandin Tarleton embraces her donor's daughter, Marinda Righter.

Recent events have made us grimly aware of the intense suffering that just a few people can cause. But in the wake of such tragedies, we also have seen the other side – the eagerness of neighbors, friends, and strangers to help as best they can.

Carmen Blandin Tarleton, a 44-year-old registered nurse and mother of two from Thetford, Vermont, has experienced both extremes first hand, but her heart is now focused on what she has been given, not what has been taken away.

On June 10, 2007, Carmen’s estranged husband doused her with industrial-strength lye and beat her. Over 80 percent of Carmen’s body was severely burned. Despite the subsequent efforts of 55 surgeries over five years, including 38 during a three-month period immediately after the attack, Carmen remained in pain, severely disfigured, and legally blind. She also suffered from uncontrolled drooling and an inability to rotate her neck.

Seeking a better remedy for her condition, Carmen discussed the potential risks and benefits of face transplant surgery with Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, Director of Plastic Surgery Transplantation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Carmen decided to undergo the rigorous face transplant screening process and was approved as a candidate in 2011. In February 2013, Carmen received new face and neck tissue during a 15-hour surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH).

The impact was immediate.

“My hopes were to have the pain in my neck relieved, and it was, instantly, when I woke up,” said Carmen at a press conference held at BWH. “I am so much more comfortable today than I have ever been in the last six years.”

Dr. Pomahac added that she also is now able to move her neck easily from side to side and thanks to improved lip control, drooling is no longer a problem.

But all of this wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity of the donor, Cheryl Denelli-Righter, and her family. As an organ and tissue donor, Cheryl not only provided new face and neck tissue to Carmen – which required additional consent from Cheryl’s family – but also helped four other patients.

Marinda Righter, Cheryl’s daughter, spoke to the media about her mother’s selflessness and how she would have wanted to help Carmen. She also thanked Carmen for bringing her happiness.

“Yesterday, after meeting you Carmen, for the first time in a long time I felt overjoyed,” said Marinda. “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.”

And Carmen has embraced forgiveness as a way to help her move on. “I want others to know that they need not give up on healing themselves when tragedy strikes,” she said. “Walking around with hate or misery in your heart is a choice, and we all can find our way to happiness. I know from my own experience that it is possible.”

“I have been on this incredible journey for the last six years, and receiving this wonderful gift ends this chapter in my life,” she added. “What a great way to move forward with what life has for me now.”

With family, friends, neighbors, BWH staff, and strangers ready to help, she’ll have plenty of love and support along the way.

More about face transplant surgery:

– Chris P

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