The Face of Courage

Carmen's Story

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In 2007, Carmen Tarleton, a registered nurse and mother of two, barely survived a brutal attack when her estranged husband beat her with a baseball bat and doused her with lye. The assault scorched more than 80 percent of her body, left her with extensive injuries and nearly took her life.

When her mother, Joan, and sister, Kesstan, saw Carmen in the hospital following the attack, they could barely recognize her.

“I saw Carmen lying on the bed. She was intubated, she was unconscious, she was almost completely wrapped up like a mummy,” Kesstan says. “I recognized her hands and I recognized her teeth.

“The flesh that was burned that was exposed was either red or gray, some of it was brown or even starting to turn black,” Kesstan continues. “The first morning we were there, and the doctor came out before we went into the ICU, [he] explained as best he could what had happened and what he was seeing. I leaned forward in my chair, and I said to him, ‘Do I need to go in there and say goodbye to my sister?’

“He looked at me and he said, ‘The chances are more likely she won’t survive at this point,’” she recalls.

“My first thought was, I’m in the wrong room,” Joan recalls. “When I saw Carmen lying there, I had the experience of falling down a hole, and I realized that I had gone into hell. And that was hell on earth. That was truly hell on earth.”

“I remember the doctor saying that [Carmen’s] body was so wounded, that it would not be able to maintain [its] position for very long, not more than 48 hours” Kesstan says. “I went into Carmen’s room and I held her hand and I just said to her, ‘You just have to decide now. Whatever you decide, I will accept. If you decide to stay, you won’t be alone. And if you decide to go, I’ll walk to the edge of this earth for you.’”

Four years after the horrific attack, Carmen joins The Doctors to share her story of courage, survival and grace.

Face Transplant

Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, director of plastic surgery transplantation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, explains how a breakthrough face transplant can help dramatically improve Carmen’s life. The procedure can help her regain the ability to eat, drink and blink, improve her appearance, and relieve scar bands and pain in her neck.

“I’m very excited [about the possibility of a face transplant],” Carmen says. “I am nervous, but sometimes it’s easier to just put my nerves aside because it [can give] me a new opportunity that I didn’t even know existed. I’m excited about it.”

Donate to Carmen’s Fund

“I have a lot of memories [about the attack] I have kept private that I know are important to share,” Carmen says. “Even some of the hardest details, because I know, if I can — and I do — it will help others that have so many other things hidden inside that they don’t share.

“After I was injured — I woke up and I was blind, and [realized] all of the challenges I had — I knew from the start that it happened for a reason,” Carmen shares.

The assault left Carmen legally blind, without functioning eyelids, and she lost her left ear and was put in a doctor’s-induced coma for more than three and a half months. The beating and lye burns severely disfigured her body, making it difficult for her to eat and drink because of the extreme damage to her face and lips.

E.R. physician Dr. Travis Stork explains why chemical burns can be worse than burns sustained in a fire. “Some of the worst injuries I have ever seen have come from lye,” Dr. Travis says. “[Chemical burns] literally burn your skin, get under your skin and just keep burning and [don’t] stop.”

While the brutal attack took a toll on Carmen’s body, she says it made her spirit stronger. “I had a dream … at that time about life and death,” she says. “This screen, like a movie screen, came up and it flashed every word: ‘Life is a choice.’ I felt very strongly that I’m going to choose to stay.”

Carmen has forgiven her ex-husband, who is serving 30 to 70 years in prison. “I just told myself how I felt,” she says. “I went back to the relationship we had – we had a very ordinary relationship between a husband and a wife. I know in my heart that what he did to me, I know he doesn’t know why. It’s just that unbelievable.

“Then I just let it go,” she adds. “It took a big weight off my shoulder that I didn’t even know I was carrying.”

Find out how Carmen has turned the brutality she endured into a positive for herself and others.

Ask Our Doctors

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OAD 10/27/11