Len Rubenstein Photography Carmen Tarleton
Carmen Tarleton says her 2013 face transplant saved her life. But in August 2019, she started feeling terrible pain in her neck and burning in her ears — then she lost most of her lips.
In July, Tarleton became the first person in the U.S. -— and the second in the world -— to receive a second face transplant. She revealed her new face this morning on Today, and shares her story with PEOPLE.
"I wanted another try," Tarleton, 52, tells PEOPLE from her home in Manchester, New Hampshire. "Most people don't understand what it's like not to have lips and drooling all the time and not to have eyelids. I have a synthetic cornea that will really last a lot longer with an eyelid. I had many, many reasons to wanting a face transplant."
Tarleton was a registered nurse who worked with kidney transplant patients when her estranged husband came to her Vermont home on June 10, 2007. He beat her with a baseball bat, and doused her with industrial strength lye — burning 80% of her body.
Airlifted to Brigham and Women's Hospital, Tarleton had 55 surgeries and struggled with constant pain before receiving her first face transplant on Valentine's Day 2013.
"My first face transplant was lifesaving," Tarleton says. "I really didn't feel I was going to live very long."
Almost immediately, her pain vanished. She became an inspirational speaker traveling the world spreading the message to never give up hope of being able to heal and urging people not to hold onto anger or hate.
"I started speaking publicly to let so many people know that I was okay and I was going to be okay," she says. "I wanted people to know that regardless of what tragedy or negativity comes your way, it doesn't mean you have to hold onto it. It doesn't mean you have to be miserable because of it. I went around spreading that message."
She wrote a book called, Overcome: Burned, Blinded and Blessed. Tarleton took up piano, learned to play the banjo and spent time with her grandkids.
"It gave me a new life," she says.
But in August 2019, her face transplant began to fail.
"It started to swell, and I had really excruciating pain in front of my ears," she says.
After long discussions with her doctors, she decided to move forward with a second face-transplant.
The July surgery went well. It may become a prototype for face transplants going forward, says Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, Director of Plastic Surgery Transplantation at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Len Rubenstein Photography Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, Director of Plastic Surgery Transplantation at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Carmen Tarleton
Due to unanticipated bleeding, they paused the procedure half-way through, took Tarleton to the ICU and stabilized her, and then continued the next morning.
"We simply couldn't safely finish the operation in one setting," says Pomahac, who performed both her first and second face transplants. "Retrospectively, that's actually a great idea."
It allowed the surgical team to be fresh and rested when doing the most difficult, intricate parts of the procedure. "Often you do it at the end of a 20 or 24-hour marathon," he says. "This time, we actually had a night to recover."
Once again, post-op, the pain she suffered disappeared. Tarleton still has a lot of physical pain from the scars that cover her body. She went blind in her right eye in 2009, and has been legally blind in her left eye since 2018. The adjustment to having a new face is easier this time, she says.
"The first time it was a little sci fi," she says. "But given my disfigurement prior, it was just easier. And this time, it's even easier."
To see her new face, Tarleton has to get very close to the mirror, or take a photo with her iPad and blow up the picture.
"I still can't see the detail that everybody else can see. But I get a good picture," she says.
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Over Zoom, Tarleton recently met the family of her new face transplant donor, 36-year-old Casey LaBrie, who battled a heroin addiction and overdosed on July 5. Tarleton thanked LaBrie's family for her incredible new eyelashes.
The family has found comfort knowing LaBrie was able to save six people – donating her heart, lungs, kidneys and liver, in addition to her face.
"It really honestly gave us hope and positivity in an otherwise hopeless situation," says the donor's sister-in-law, Bobbi-Sue Harrington, a 37-year-old nurse. "We are extremely grateful for that." Post pandemic, the family hopes to meet her in person, Harrington says.
Tarleton's surgeon says he would love it if this face lasts her lifetime, realistically, it may only last another seven years like the last one. Still, Tarleton is optimistic.
"I believe this face is going to last me until I leave the Earth," she tells PEOPLE. "It is my last face. I won't have a third."