THETFORD, VERMONT — Sometimes, people show unbelievable courage in the face of unexpected adversity. Carmen Tarleton is one example. In 2007, her ex-husband threw lye on her, burning her face beyond recognition. Today, with help from science and sheer willpower, she is living a new life.
“They would put these graphic warnings on the TV and I realized the graphic warning was looking at me. And I was just appalled. I couldn’t believe that. And I was a little frustrated because I couldn't see what everyone was talking about,” said Tarleton.
The “graphic” image TV viewers were being warned about was 39-year-old Tarleton’s face… her old face.
In September 2007, a few weeks after her divorce, Tarleton’s ex-husband broke into her house, beat her with a baseball bat and doused her with lye. The attack lasted just a few minutes, but it burned more than 80 percent of her body. When it was over, Carmen was blind and her face was scarred beyond recognition.
“Most of our marriage was good. He was not abusive in any way; not emotionally, verbally or physically, until the night he attacked me,” said Tarleton.
For the next three months, she was kept in a medically-induced coma. Doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston performed close to 40 surgeries on her and gave her a new lease on life. But this life came with new challenges.
“I really struggled with being completely blind. I was 39 years old. You never expect that ever, as I didn't. And I was struggling because I had all of these wounds, open wounds, for four years and there were a couple of years where I couldn’t see them and couldn’t see what everyone was talking about,” she said.
But even in her darkest hours, Tarleton did not lose hope.
“I think because I was so wounded and I had lived when I really felt maybe I shouldn't have lived physically. But because I did, I felt there was a big reason, personally for me. The stronger I was, the better I did, the more I was helping other people, just by being myself. Although for the first couple of years it was very difficult,” she said.
Hoping to help others, Tarleton wrote a book detailing her life after the attack.
She also forgave her attacker, who was now serving a life sentence. Forgiveness, she said, was the only way forward.
Almost four years after the attack, Carmen’s doctor gave her life-changing news.
She had been selected as a candidate for a face transplant. Doctors would remove her scarred face and replace it with a healthy one. But the surgery would be risky. Carmen’s immune system was weak after years of invasive medical treatments and her body might reject the new face… if doctors were even able to find one.
It took nearly a year, but a donor finally became available when 54-year-old Cheryl Righter died of a stroke. Her kidneys, liver and arm tissue had already been donated to four different people. Her daughter Marinda decided to donate her mother’s face, as well.
“I feel that she [my mother] had an agenda. Once she had passed, it was like, I found this strength in my core. This strength… that I have no idea where it came from, but it was like, ok, I need to make some decisions right now and the face transplant and all, those were big decisions. But also really easy for me to make because of the person that my mother was. She was a helper. She would go out of her way to help anyone in pretty much any situation,” said Marinda Righter.
Last February, in a grueling 17-hour surgery, doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital successfully transplanted Cheryl’s face onto Carmen. A few weeks later, Carmen revealed her new face to the world - with Marinda Righter looking on.
“Yesterday, after meeting you Carmen, for the first time, in a long time, I felt overjoyed. 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. This is truly a blessing. Thank you,” said Righter.
“Well, it wasn't as dramatic as I thought it would be. It just felt really nice and I said ah, this is really great. I look great," said Tarleton.
"I feel good and this is nice, to finally have it over. It was finally over, I had waited a long time. It was such a big gift. A big gift. And it improved my daily life so much, so great,” said Tarleton.
“My new face… you can see the line of my new face and my very white burned skin on the back. Actually, this side is better because it's not so hairy. So prior to this, my whole face was burnt as well,” she said.
So far, Tarleton has undergone more than 60 surgeries. She has regained some vision in one of her eyes and hopes that 80 percent of her facial muscles will someday function normally.
Her story shows how one person can change another’s life forever. For Carmen, though, it also shows how we can control our destiny, if that is what we choose.
“I want people to know that no matter what challenges come into their life, the challenges have come to propel them to a new place. And there is nothing that they can’t overcome and I truly, truly believe that with all my heart," said Tarleton.