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Face transplant recipient reveals new look

Carmen Blandin Tarleton

AP

Carmen Blandin Tarleton embraced her surgeon today at a news conference at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Carmen Blandin Tarleton is ready for the next chapter in her life. The Vermont woman has been dealing with a difficult recovery since 2007, when her estranged husband attacked her with lye, burning more than 80 percent of her body.

On Wednesday morning, she spoke before reporters at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, revealing for the first time the results of a face transplant in February that has relieved pain in her neck and is expected to greatly improve her motor function.

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Where there was jagged scar tissue before, now there are smooth cheeks and a perfectly defined nose. She is expected to gain increasing control over her new lips and improved sensation over her entire face.

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

The 44-year-old mother of two spoke about how forgiveness has helped her move forward, something she writes about in her new book, “Overcome: Burned, Blinded, and Blessed.”

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“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.”

She spoke specifically about the pain and anger that the victims of the Marathon bombings and the greater Boston community are feeling after the attack.

“Recovery takes time and patience,” she said. “I have learned that we have so much more control over the life than we know. I am the living example that we have the power and the ability to overcome anything that happens to us.”

Tarleton has faced many challenges over the past six years -- “sometimes with my knees knocking,” she said -- including 55 surgeries and what looked to be a major setback just weeks ago. Liz Kowalczyk wrote in Wednesday’s Globe about how Tarleton’s immune system had rejected the donor face.

Doctors thought they were out of options. But, at Tarleton’s urging, they tried one more drug, despite the significant risk it posed to her life. The treatment worked.

Now, she has “no apparent signs of rejection,” Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, her transplant surgeon, said at the press conference. “We have pioneered a new frontier in what is immunologically possible.”

Tarleton met donor Cheryl Denelli Righter’s daughter for the first time on Tuesday. Marinda Righter described her mother as “my best friend, my soulmate, and my inspiration,” a woman who had endured hardship of her own, after her husband was killed by a drunk driver. She was a giver and a pillar in their Williamstown community.

Righter embraced Tarleton, thanking her and the doctors. She said she believes Tarleton and her mother are “kindred spirits.”

“I get to feel my mother’s skin again,” she said. “I get to see my mother’s freckles and, through you, I get to see my mother live on. This is truly a blessing.”

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.
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