"You will never meet a more resilient person than Carmen Tarleton," TechKnow contributor Lindsay Moran says of the inspirational face transplant recipient.
On this week's TechKnow, Moran travels to Vermont to meet Tarleton and learn more about the revolutionary technology allowed her a second chance at normalcy.
After a brutal attack by her now ex-husband, registered nurse Carmen Tarleton was left legally blind with burns over 80 percent of her body, what one doctor described as "the most horrific injury a human could suffer."
"Before I was attacked, I considered myself a good-looking person, an average-looking person," Tarleton says. After her attack, she endured 55 surgeries over the course of five years, but was still left with a face and neck that were disfigured and incredibly painful. A risky and rare procedure was her next best hope.
"I was stunned," Tarleton says, of finding out she was a candidate for a face transplant. "I was shocked that this could even be done."
After 14 months of waiting, doctors announced that they had found a potential donor for Tarleton. Cheryl Denelli-Righter, a 56-year-old woman who had suffered a sudden massive stroke and was on life-support in a coma. It wasn't a perfect match, but Tarleton didn't want to wait any longer. "I had waited a long time," she says, "and I said yes."
15 hours of surgery began with the procedure to remove Denelli-Righter's face, after her family consented to the donation. Carmen's team of surgeons had just four hours before her donor face would no longer be viable. In that time, they connected the blood vessels, nerves, and muscles to Carmen's face, then reconnected the bones to make the face and neck fit properly.
The risk associated with surgery was minimal compared to the life-threatening complications Tarleton was up against after receiving her new face. Because of the magnitude of her injury, Tarleton had received many skin grafts and blood transfusions from multiple donors. Doctors feared that her immune system would attack her new face, and they were right. After weeks of failed anti-rejection drugs, they were down to one last hope.
"We were literally on the last medication," explains Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, one of Tarleton's plastic surgeons. A full dose of the drug, a powerful anti-rejection medication called Alemtuzumab, could have completely shut down Tarleton's immune system. "The risk of death was significant."
But Carmen wasn't taking no for an answer.
"I told him that he needs to give me the drug," Tarleton recollects. "I wanted this face to work out. So I said, 'I'm going to do whatever I have to do.'"