The life of Carmen Tarleton was changed forever in 2007 after her ex-husband broke into her home, hit her with a baseball bat, and sprayed her with a chemical called lye.
The attack left the former nurse badly disfigured, blind in one eye and legally blind in the other. She had her first face transplant in 2013, when the procedure was quite new. It lasted seven years, but her body began to reject it slowly.
“When my first face transplant failed, I basically went back to looking disfigured,” she said. “I didn’t have eyelids anymore. I lost my lips.”
The decision for her to go through the process again — she’s had 73 reconstructive surgeries in total — was an easy one, she said.
The second face transplant took a team of 40 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston about 20 hours over two days. Fortunately, it was less risky than the initial surgery because her immune system was less sensitive the second time around.
But it was still a challenge, Tarleton’s plastic surgeon, Dr Bohdan Pomahac, who’s been treating her since she was airlifted to the hospital over a decade ago, said. There were concerns about a possible rejection, again.
The donor for Tarleton’s second surgery was a woman named Casey Harrington Labrie, who struggled with heroin addiction and died last July at age 36 from a fentanyl overdose. She had a 15-year-old daughter.
“We were incredibly lucky and found by pure luck a donor that had a lot of characteristics common with Carmen’s own body, something that you would hope for a sibling to have,” Pomahac added.
Harrington Labrie had told her sister-in-law Bobbi Sue Harrington that she wanted to be an organ donor. Her organs saved five lives, but her family was initially hesitant about donating her face.
“Our initial emotion was, ‘No. That’s not gonna be OK. We can’t live with that,’” Bobbi Sue Harrington said. “The more research we did (on) recipients and how their lives had changed, the better we felt about it.”
“It was a godsend for us as a family,” she added. “It gave us hope in what would otherwise appear to be a completely hopeless time, especially for (Casey’s) daughter.”
Tarleton got the opportunity to meet Harrington Labrie’s family over video chat.
“In the most difficult time, you gave me the biggest gift anybody could have given me,” Tarleton said.
Now, seven months after her second face transplant, Tarleton said she’s “very happy,” explaining that everything on her face is donated except for one ear.
“This is my face. It was given to me. It’s not the original face I was born with, but it’s my face. And every time I look in the mirror, I think of Casey,” Tarleton said.
Her positive attitude has been an inspiration to the donor’s family — and everyone who meets her.