But that’s not why Tarleton – the first American and only the second person in the world to receive a second-person transplant – is excited about the operation he underwent in Brigham and the women’s hospital.
Freeing her from pain and disfigurement, the second transplant will allow her to return to work soon as a motivational speaker.
And Tarleton, who was burned more than 80 percent of her body and blinded in 2007 when her estranged husband smeared her with lye, can̵
More than 40 patients worldwide have received transplants, including 16 in the United States, nine of whom have had surgeries in Brigham.
After her first transplant in 2013, Tarleton was quick to give up her pain medication. With renewed energy, she learned to play the piano and banjo, wrote a memoir, and began speaking to many groups about her life.
But despite anti-rejection drugs, her body attacks the donor’s face. She has always been swollen and prone to infection, she said. By last year, it became clear that the transplant was failing.
The blood vessels in her face and neck narrow, causing her facial tissue to die and darken. Her eyelids tightened and she could no longer use her lips, causing her to burst and have difficulty eating. She stayed home most of the time and needed strong pain medication.
Tarleton looked “worse or maybe a little worse” than she did after the post-burn reconstruction, Dr Bogdan Pomahac, director of plastic surgery at Brigham, said on Friday.
He gave her two options: She could undergo conventional reconstruction – which could not restore her eyelids – or try a second transplant.
“I had a very frank and open discussion with Carmen,” Pomahak said. “Based on an organ transplant experience, the second usually doesn’t last longer than the first.” He may get a few years with his new face and then find himself in the same place again.
But Tarlotton, a former nurse, did not hesitate. The first transplant made such a dramatic difference in her quality of life, she wanted to try again.
Pomahak discussed it with his team. “We had the feeling that she understood the risks and benefits,” he said. “We agreed it was reasonable.”
More than 45 clinicians, led by Pomahac, performed the operation in July. The hospital keeps the exact date to protect the donor’s integrity.
Surgeons performed her operation for two days. After working 15 hours on the first day, they decided to send Tarleton to the Intensive Care Unit because she had lost a lot of blood. There she was reassured but not held under general anesthesia. The next day, the team completed the operation in five hours.
“It turns out to be a blessing,” Pomahak said. “We had a rested team. We had enough time. We really did a great job on the nerves, the small nuances and details that are often done in the 19th or 20th hour of the operation. “
Tarleton awoke to find that the pain was gone.
Although the doctors do not make any promises, Tarlent feels that her new face will work better. “It feels a little better, the way it will fit my body better,” she said.
In fact, she was lucky. The donor’s face is a perfect match, with many similar types of blood and tissue.
Tarleton said she came out of intensive care feeling very weak, but now she can climb stairs four times a day and walk down her hallway every day. She expects to regain full strength in two weeks. She is already strong enough to live alone; her sister left after staying with her for the first few days. “I’m fiercely independent,” Tarleton said.
She is a close friend of the daughter of her first donor and expects this friendship to continue. And while she doesn’t expect such a relationship to emerge from her second donor’s family, she’s open to it. She knows nothing about the newest donor, but wants the woman’s relatives to know how much the gift has improved her life.
Brigham and Women has no new face transplants. “We have not been able to find a suitable candidate, but we are still looking for patients in need,” Pomahak said.
The hospital has a grant from the Federal Agency for Advanced Defense Research Projects, which will pay for another patient’s surgery, including travel. Tarleton was not part of the DARPA-funded study, but the hospital covered the cost of its operations and surgeons donated their time.
Tarleton’s husband, Herbert Rodgers, pleaded guilty in 2009 to mutilating Tarleton in exchange for a sentence of at least 30 years in prison. He died in prison in 2017.
You can find Felice J. Freyer at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer