BOSTON (AP) — A Vermont woman revealed her new face Wednesday, six years after her ex-husband disfigured her by dousing her with industrial-strength lye, and said she went through "what some may call hell" but has found a way to be happy.
Carmen Blandin Tarleton of Thetford had face transplant surgery at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital in February and spoke publicly for the first time at a news conference at the hospital Wednesday.
"I'm now in a better place, mentally and emotionally, than I ever could have imagined six years ago," said Tarleton, a former transplant nurse. "I want to share my experience with others, so they may find that strength inside themselves to escape their own pain."
In 2007, the 44-year-old mother of two was attacked by her then-husband, Herbert Rodgers, who believed she was seeing another man. Police say he went to the house looking for that man, then went into a fury directed toward Tarleton, striking her with a bat and pouring lye from a squeeze bottle onto her face.
When police arrived, Tarleton was trying to crawl to a shower to wash away the chemical. It already had distorted her face.
In 2009, Rodgers pleaded guilty to maiming Tarleton in exchange for a prison sentence of at least 30 years.
"I learned that ... forgiveness doesn't condone anything he did and it's not about him — it's about forgiving him, it's forgiving myself, it's allowing myself to move forward and not getting stuck in the tragedy of that night," said Tarleton, who has undergone 55 surgeries during the past five years.
During the face transplant surgery, more than 30 surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses worked for more than 15 hours to replace her skin, muscles, tendons and nerves, the hospital said.
The face donor was a Williamstown, Mass., woman named Cheryl Denelli Righter who died of a sudden stroke, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Righter's daughter, Marinda, told Tarleton on Wednesday that she looked beautiful, adding she was certain her mother had somehow picked Tarleton. "They are both mothers, they are both survivors, they are both beacons of light," she said.
Righter said that after meeting Tarleton for the first time Tuesday, she felt overjoyed for the first time in a long time.
"I get to feel my mother's skin again, I get to see my mother's freckles, and through you, I get to see my mother live on," she said before going to Tarleton to hug and kiss her again. "This is truly a blessing."
Tarleton is legally blind and read her remarks from a tablet. She thanked Righter's family for what she called "a tremendous gift" that's greatly alleviated the physical pain she'd felt daily.
She referred to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and said the city is "facing the challenges of pain and forgiveness."
"There is a lot to learn and take from horrific events that happen," Tarleton said. "I want others to know that they need not give up on feeling (like) themselves when tragedy strikes, but instead they can make a choice to find the good and allow that to help them heal."
Tarleton described how it feels to touch and wash her face since her transplant.
She said she still doesn't have full sensation on her new face, but she is experiencing tingling in certain areas. As all that tissue starts to settle, she feels the sensation change almost every week, she said.
The tingling and other sensations are triggered by the regrowth of nerves that were connected during transplant surgery, said Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, the lead surgeon for the face transplant and the director of Plastic Surgery Transplantation at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
"Carmen will be able to feel her face, and gradually, close to what we feel (on) our faces," he said.
"I have been on this incredible journey for the last six years and receiving this wonderful gift ends this chapter of my life," Tarleton said. "What a great way to move forward with what life has for me now."
Associated Press Writer Jay Lindsay contributed to this report.
Rodrique Ngowi can be reached at www.twitter.com/ngowi