When Marinda Righter met Carmen Blandin Tarleton Tuesday, she rushed to embrace the woman whose transplanted face was donated by Righter's late mother, and did not soon let go.
It was a magical moment, Righter said. In some strange but powerful way, it was as if she were holding her mother.
“I get to feel my mother's skin again,” she said Wednesday at a press conference at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where Tarleton received her transplant. “I get to see her freckles.
“Through you,” she said, turning to Tarleton, “I get to see my mother live on. This is truly a blessing.”
Six years after her face was burned beyond recognition when her estranged husband doused her with industrial strength lye, Tarleton presented her new visage to the world, calling her transplant “heaven-sent.”
With a sunflower from Righter pinned to her shirt, the Vermont mother of two spoke movingly of her painstaking recovery, of the challenges she met with “knees knocking,” and of how the February transplant had helped her move forward with a renewed sense of possibility.
“I am forever grateful,” said Tarleton, 44. “Although I went through what some may call hell, I found my way to my own happiness.”
Tarleton — who spoke clearly but sipped water through a straw because she has limited control of her facial muscles — said that the transplant immediately eased the terrible pain she had been experiencing in her neck and that sensation was slowly returning to her face.
“It’s all feeling more normal to me,” she said. “If what I have today never changes, I’m fine.”
Face transplant surgeon Bohdan Pomahac said that Tarleton arrived at the hospital after the attack with some of the worst injuries he had ever seen, with burns to more than 80 percent of her body. Over the next three months, she underwent 38 surgeries, and over the ensuing five years, 17 more.
After Brigham doctors performed a partial face transplant in 2009, the second such transplant performed in the United States, Tarleton sought to have the surgery herself. In February, she became the first person to receive a face transplant whose immune system was poised to reject the donated tissue. Dozens of blood transfusions she received after the assault had heightened the sensitivity of her body to transplanted tissue, and her body began to attack her new face.
But through a drug regimen that carried a significant risk of death, her body began to accept the transplant. While doctors will continue to monitor her closely, she shows no apparent signs of rejection, which Pomahac described as almost miraculous.
“This case is the first of its kind,” Pomahac said, describing Tarleton as the most immunologically complex patient to receive such a transplant. “In this case, we have pioneered a new frontier.”
Tarleton has limited vision in her left eye and is blind in the right, and she is just beginning to regain control of her lips. In coming months, sensation will begin to return to her face, Pomahac said.
Sitting beside Tarleton, Pomahac thanked her for her trust and courage and said she was among the most inspirational people he had ever known.
Tarleton’s long wait for a transplant came to an end in February, when Cheryl Denelli Righter died at 56 after suffering a sudden stroke.
Righter recalled her mother as a free spirit, a dyed-in-the-wool hippie who believed that all people are connected.
“I think Carmen and my mother are kindred spirits,” she said.
The successful donation, against long odds, marked a “beautiful reunion of two women who never met but who will be forever intertwined,” she said.
Cheryl Righter was an organ and tissue donor, but face donation requires family consent. Factors for a successful match include age, skin color and texture, proximity to the hospital, and blood-type compatibility.
Righter recalled her mother as a selfless woman who taught students with special needs and whose smile and laugh could light up a room. After her husband was killed in a car crash by a drunk driver, she raised a young daughter on her own.
“She gave and gave and gave,” Marinda Righter said. “It was who she was.”
Righter quipped that her mother’s free-spirited ways might rub off on Tarleton. Without missing a beat, Tarleton said she was something of a hippie herself, at least in her younger days.
Tarleton, who recently published a book, “Overcome: Burned, Blinded, and Blessed,” said she would be forever grateful to the Righter family and to all the people who have supported her through her long recovery.
“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.”
It took years, but Tarleton said she eventually found forgiveness for her estranged husband, letting go of the bitterness that held her, she said.
“It’s about moving forward and not getting stuck in the tragedy of that night,” she said.
In that vein, she sent a message to those wounded in the Boston Marathon bombings, hoping they can find the strength to 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.”
As the press conference came to an end, Righter and Tarleton hugged again.
Tarleton patted her donor’s daughter gently on the back, as a mother would, as they held each other cheek to cheek.