The Woman Who Had a Face Transplant

Carmen Tarleton survived a brutal attack from her estranged husband, but her painful journey was just beginning.

Carmen Tarleton
Courtesy Carmen Tarleton
Carmen Tarleton (right) with her sister Kess Blandin in 1998.

You cannot cry.

Not yet, not here. You need to concentrate. You need to be strong. As Kesstan “Kess” Blandin sat in the family waiting room outside the Intensive Care Burn Unit on the seventh floor of Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, she leaned forward in her chair to listen to Dr. James Watkins, her sister’s surgeon.

She knew she needed to hear every word.

The soft-spoken trauma surgeon did his best to choose his words carefully but the facts were grim. “Carmen was attacked and burned over 80 percent of her body with industrial lye,” he told Kess, her mother, and her brother, who sat with her in the ICU’s waiting room. “Hers is one of the most severe burn cases I have ever seen.”

As the burn unit’s nurses and hospital orderlies hurried by, Dr. Watkins continued. Carmen had been blinded in both eyes. The lye, a caustic chemical that is poisonous and corrosive, had burned off her eyelids, her left ear and part of her nose. It had eaten away most of her face.

The family was speechless. None could fully comprehend what Dr. Watkins was telling them. Much of it was too horrific. Suddenly, Kess half rose from her seat and asked, “Do I need to go in there and say goodbye to my sister? Is this what you are saying?”

The veteran surgeon answered softly, “The chances of her surviving are not very high.”

Just a day earlier, on June 10, 2007, Carmen Blandin Tarleton, a 39-year-old nurse and mother of two girls, Liza, 14, and Hannah 12, had been sound asleep in her home in Vermont. Around 2:30 a.m. she was awakened by a loud crash that shook the sturdy white house. It’s an earthquake! she thought as she got up to investigate. Groggy, she opened her bedroom door and saw a man dressed all in black in her living room. Terrified, she told him, “Take whatever you want!”

But the figure lunged at her. In a flash she recognized it was her estranged second husband, Herb Rodgers. He punched her hard in the face, knocking her to the floor. “Herb!” she screamed as she fell down. “It’s me, Carmen! What are you doing?”

He grabbed the baseball bat he had brought with him and began beating her with it. She raised her left arm to block the blows and heard it crack. Pain shot through her body like an electric shock. Rodgers kept beating her until she was unconscious.

He tied her hands behind her back and dragged her into another bedroom where she regained consciousness long enough to yell to her daughters, “Call the police!” Rodgers again beat her mercilessly with the bat. She was helpless. He grabbed her throat and choked her. She lost consciousness.

Moments later, Carmen awoke. She was lying in a battered heap on the floor and looked up to see Rodgers return with a dish detergent bottle in his hand. As he squeezed its contents over her, she thought, He’s going to set me on fire! Somehow she managed to shout through her pain, “Please!”

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Rodgers squirted the clear thick gel all over Carmen, into her eyes, onto her face, hair, arms, chest, legs and back. It was industrial-strength lye and immediately began burning off her skin, turning her fair complexion to mottled dark brown, then black, as it etched its way through tissue and into her bones. Her skin, on fire, soon felt like it was burning from the inside out.

Then, a loud shout from outside the house: “This is the Vermont State Police! Come out with your hands up!”

Rodgers surrendered and was handcuffed.

Carmen was in agony, begging her daughters to help her into the tub and shower her with cold water. An ambulance soon rushed her to a nearby hospital and she was then transferred to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, two hours away in Boston.

She was blind, battered, and terribly disfigured, but still alive. Barely.

Before Kess, Joan and Donny could see Carmen in her ICU Burn Unit room, they had to put on gowns, hairnets, masks and gloves. Burn victims, because they have lost their skin that normally protects us from infections, are especially vulnerable. Of the patients that survive a burn, anywhere from one-half to three-quarters later die from infection. As a precaution, Carmen’s room, like some others in the hospital’s ICU Burn Unit, was pressurized to minimize the infiltration of outside infectious particles.

Carmen’s medical team had told the family that she had been placed in a medically induced coma by powerful drugs known as amnesiacs. She could be in a coma for up to four months while she underwent skin grafts and other surgeries. However, her doctors had temporarily ‘lightened’ her dosage in the hope that she might be able to respond to her visiting family.

Kess walked into Carmen’s room, followed by her mother, then her brother. They saw a small woman lying still in the hospital bed. She had a tracheostomy with a tube down her throat. She was hooked up to a ventilator that was breathing for her and was tethered to a bank of blinking and whirring high-tech monitors. She was bundled like a mummy in white bandages except for her horribly swollen face and her hands. Her face was so disfigured and blackened it was unrecognizable; it was as if her skin had been flayed off.

Joan was horrified but also confused. She told Donny, “This isn’t Carmen.” We’ve got the wrong room, she thought. Where’s Carmen?

It wasn’t until Kess recognized Carmen’s hands, which had not been burned, and her crooked front tooth that she realized this was her sister. She felt like she’d been punched in the solar plexus.

Kess took a deep breath, walked to the right side of the bed and gently took Carmen’s left hand in hers. Then she bent down and whispered into her one remaining ear, “Carmen, it’s Kess and Mom and Donny.” She paused a moment and added, “We are here for you.”

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Kess felt her sister grab her hand and saw her legs begin to move. She blinked back tears and looked at her mother and brother, who were now also talking to Carmen.

Somehow, she thought as she held Carmen’s hand even tighter, we will all get through this.

Snow White. That’s how Kess began thinking of her sister as she watched her lying in her hospital bed, ‘asleep’ in a deep medically induced coma. Kess had moved into an apartment in Boston to be near Carmen and had visited her every day since first seeing her a month ago.

Against all odds, Carmen had survived, lying motionless and unaware of the team of surgeons and nurses that monitored her vital signs, dressed and cleaned her wounds, and wheeled her into surgery for 38 skin graft operations.

During her daily visits, Kess would talk and read to her sister. Although she knew there was little chance Carmen could hear anything, it helped her pass the time. And, she thought, perhaps the words could somehow seep into her consciousness.

She read widely, from Buddhist writings and poetry to the hundreds of cards and letters people sent. From a collection of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, she read:

Extinguish my eyes, I’ll go on seeing you.

Seal my ears, I’ll go on hearing you.

And without feet I can make my way to you.

Without a mouth I can swear your name.

Break off my arms, I’ll take hold of you with my heart as with a hand.

Stop my heart, and my brain will start to beat.

And if you consume my brain with fire,

I’ll feel you burn in every drop of my blood.

One month into her coma, Carmen’s blood pressure dropped dangerously low and wouldn’t respond to medication. Her doctors called in Joan and Kess to explain that there was ‘a good chance’ Carmen wouldn’t make it.

“You don’t know Carmen,” Joan told the doctors. She recalled how Carmen ‘had to be the best’ at everything she had tried; from learning the piano, to playing tennis to skiing. “She’s always been a competitor and a fighter,” said her mother, “and she has two daughters to live for.”

Near the end of September, more than three months after she had been attacked, Carmen ‘woke up’ from her coma. She had defied all the odds. Still blind, but sensing that her sister was with her, she called out to Kess, “I know I’ve been gone awhile. What is it, July?”

“It’s September 23rd, Carm,” said Kess.

As she listened to her sister’s voice, she recalled a powerful dream she’d had when she was unconscious. In it the word ‘LIFE’ flashed on a large screen followed by the words, ‘IS’ and ‘A’ and ‘CHOICE.’

“Life is a choice,” she had repeated in her dream.

Carmen was back. But her journey, full of new choices, twists, and turns, was just beginning.

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