Bonus Read

Carmen Tarleton survived the
brutal attack, but her painful
journey was just beginning

Life
is a

Choice
[[1L]]

Reader’s Digest XX/12

P H O T O : L E S LY E D A V I S / T H E N E W Y O R K T I M E S / R E D U X

BY RO B E RT K I E N E R

Y

You cannot cry.

electrical charge. 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 came to.
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!”
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

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.
JUST A DAY EARLIER on June 10, 2007,
Carmen Blandin Tarleton, a 39-yearold nurse and mother of two girls,
Liza, 14, and Hannah 12, had been
sound asleep in her Thetford, Vermont home. Around 2:30 a.m. she was
awakened by a loud crash that shook
the sturdy, white clapboard 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
Reader’s Digest XX/12

BEFORE KESS, JOAN and Donny could

Carmen
(right) with
Kess, in 1998

P H O T O : C O U R T E S Y C A R M E N TA R L E T O N

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, Watkins
continued. Carmen had been blinded
in both eyes. The lye 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.”
[[1L]]

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, terribly disfigured but still alive. Barely.

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 them 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 further 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 Car[[1L]]

men.” 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.”
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
Reader’s Digest XX/12

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 and 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.

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

Her face was so disfigured and
blackened, it was unrecognizable; it was
as if her skin had been flayed off.
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

it, July?”
“It’s September 23, Carm,” said Kess.
As she listened to her sister’s voice,
she recalled a powerful dream she 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.
THE PAIN WAS EXCRUCIATING. Carmen had been back living in her Vermont home for several months and
had to have her dressings changed
every two days—a painful endurance
[[2R]]

ners. Someone sent her a check for
$1000. She remembered something
her father had told her eight years
earlier, “I never wanted to change the
world but I know you do.” Maybe she
had found her calling.
Excited that a local television station was about to broadcast a report
on Carmen, the family gathered in her
living room to watch the evening
news. The news anchor introduced
the segment and added, “Warning.
These images are graphic and may be
disturbing to some viewers. Viewer
discretion is advised.”
Carmen felt as if she’d been violated

Looking at her
unscarred hands
with Kess, two years
after the attack

alive. “I’m so sorry, Kess,” Carmen
said as she broke down in tears during
one session. “But the pain is just so
horrible.”
There were also little victories. Carmen began seeing a therapist. After
several months at home, she had the
courage to walk into the bedroom
where Herb had beaten her. He was
now in jail, awaiting trial. A year after
her attack she received a corneal
transplant and with it the hope that
she would finally be freed from her
prison of blindness.
She agreed to an interview with the
Associated Press. When friends and
strangers told her they had been inspired by her story, she wondered if
she should keep telling it.
“Maybe I can help people,” she told
her mother. “The better I feel, the happier people seem to get.” Letters
poured in from around the world.
Neighbors brought her cooked dinReader’s Digest XX/12

“I’m so sorry, Kess,” Carmen said as
she broke down in tears. “But the
pain is just so horrible.”

PHOTO : JENNIFER HAUCK / VALLEY NEWS

test that lasted about two hours. Kess
tried her best to gingerly remove Carmen’s bandages but the open wounds,
especially those on her head and back
that had not yet healed, were ultrasensitive. Carmen couldn’t help but
scream in the shower when any water
touched her open wounds or when a
dressing pulled off bits of tender raw
skin.
Remembering her own nursing
days and how difficult it had been to
cope with patients in such pain, she
tried her best to stay silent. She especially didn’t want her daughters or her
mother, who were all living with her,
to hear her screams.
Joan couldn’t bear to see her daughter suffer. When Carmen screamed as
Kess changed her dressings, she’d retreat to the garage, out of earshot, for
a cigarette and a cry.
The pain was searing; sometimes it
felt as if someone were burning her
[[1L]]

“Well, Carm. You’re scarred. I don’t
know what else to say.”
On a bus into Boston for one of her
regular weekly checkups, skin grafts
or other procedures at Brigham and
Women’s Hospital, Kess was leading
Carmen by the arm down the aisle to
use the restroom. Suddenly a four or
five-year old girl sitting at the rear
with her father began crying when she
saw Carmen.
“Daddy, Daddy!” the small girl
whimpered. “Make him go away. He’s
scaring me.”
Although she could not see the girl,
Carmen spoke in her direction: “It’s

again. “Oh my God! They are talking
about me,” she shouted. Then, quieter,
she asked, “They’re talking about
me?”
Neither Carmen’s daughters, Kess,
nor her mother said anything. But
Carmen was devastated. As Joan had
seen her do so often, she lightly
touched her face, feeling rough scar
tissue, her damaged nose and lips, her
missing ear. How horrible do I look?
wondered Carmen.
The next day she asked her mother,
“What do I look like?”
Joan hesitated then said, “I can’t put
it into words.”
Kess was a little more forthcoming.

okay, honey. You don’t have to be
scared. I’m a mommy.”
A moment later Kess told her,
“Carm, never mind, she can’t hear
you.”
“What do you mean?” asked Carmen.
“Her father has moved her out of
the way.”
ALTHOUGH HER FIRST corneal transplant had failed, Carmen had the same
operation in her right eye. Less than
two weeks later, nearly two years after
her attack, she was brushing her teeth
when she noticed the sink’s gleaming
silver faucet. “No! It’s impossible,” she
[[2R]]

told herself. “I can see!”
She had been praying to be able to
see again, to look at her daughters,
Kess, her mother. Finally, her prison
doors had swung open. She could see
Hannah’s graceful smile, Liza’s wavy
hair and Kess’s deep brown eyes. “You
are so beautiful,” she told each of
them.
It was time to answer the question
she had agonized over: “What do I
look like?” When she was alone she
went into her bathroom and locked

let alone drop my girls off at college
one day. The litany of lost things was
endless.”
For months, Carmen was lost in despair. Then, while listening to a selfhelp book, she heard a message about
forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t something we do for others, noted one
writer, we do it for ourselves. It was
as if a curtain had lifted. Carmen realized that hating Herb for what he had
done would only continue to damage
her. He had been sentenced to 30-70

She looked at the face that stared back at
her in the mirror and moaned, “Oh God.
Where am I? Where is Carmen?”
the door. She raised a small hand mirror to her face. As she looked at the
disfigured, scarred face that stared
back at her, she moaned softly, “Oh
God. Where am I? Where is Carmen?”
She thought of the little girl on the
bus, the television news warning, her
family’s hesitancy to tell her what she
looked like, and broke down crying.
As if fate hadn’t been harsh enough,
she lost her regained eyesight after
only four months. She was blind again.
Doctors said there was hope they
could restore some sight in her left
eye, but the right was too damaged.
She sank into a deep depression. As
she wrote, “Every time I heard my
kids laugh, I ached to see their smiles.
A car horn reminded me that I would
never again drive to the grocery store,
[[1L]]

years in prison; this was no longer
about him. More importantly, forgiveness was a powerful message that she
could speak about to others.
She thought back to her dream
where she had seen the sign, “Life is
a choice.” And she remembered her
father telling her he knew she had always wanted to change the world. She
could start on her own small corner
of the world.
Carmen began speaking to Rotary
Clubs, churches, women’s groups; almost anyone who asked. She summoned up the courage to appear on
“The Doctors,” a national television
show about medical issues. The more
she spread her message, the more
comfortable she felt with herself. One
day, while she was shopping for a new
Reader’s Digest XX/12

Marinda
Righter
cellphone
with
Joan,holds
a little boy broke
a photo of her mother,
off from
his
mother’s
donor Cheryl Denelli-grip and ran
overRighter,
to Carmen.
at a hospital
“What’s
wrong with your face?” he
press conference.
asked her.
Carmen, still blind, bent down and
told him, “I was burned, honey.”
“Oh. Does it hurt?”
“Sometimes,” said Carmen.
He smiled at her and said, “Well, I
hope you get better.”
She began collecting her thoughts
for a book. Thanks to another corneal
transplant, she regained limited vision
in her left eye. Though still technically blind, she could now use a magnifier to read.
Almost every week she and Kess
would take the bus to Boston for consultations, more skin graft surgeries
and treatments for infections. During
the three years since her attack she
had undergone more than 50 operations. She was still in almost constant
pain, and took a cocktail of drugs to
lessen the horrible burning sensation.
In December 2011 Carmen’s lead
plastic surgeon and head of the burn
center and plastic surgery transplantation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, called
with a proposition. Would she, he
asked, be interested in being considered for a full-face transplant? As he
spoke, Carmen lightly ran her fingers
over her scarred face, pausing to feel
her caved-in nose and her battered
lips that never closed properly and
left her drooling constantly.
“You’d have eyelids, a full nose and
your quality of life would improve,”

said Dr. Pomahac.
There would be months of testing
and psychological consultations, he
explained. And of course, there could
be no guarantee a donor could be
found. He said that because Carmen
had so many operations that required
large blood transfusions, her bodily
defenses might not be strong enough
to fight off the rejection that normally
occurs with transplants.
“I just want you to think about it,
Carmen,” said the skilled surgeon,
who had just completed one of the
world’s few full face transplants on a
Texas man. “I know it’s a lot to grasp.”
A new face, thought Carmen after
hanging up. I could smile again. Maybe
I could even kiss someone!
AFTER SCORES OF PHYSICAL and psychological exams, Carmen was approved for a full facial transplant.
However it wasn’t until 11:30 p.m. on
February 13, 2013, more than a year
after Dr. Pomahac had first asked her
if she would consider a transplant,
that she got the call she had been waiting for.
“Carmen, I know you have been
waiting a long time,” said Dr. Pomahac, “but we may have a donor.”
Carmen cradled her cell phone to
her one good ear and listened as the
surgeon continued, “But we have a
couple of issues.” He explained that
the donor was about nine years older
than Carmen and there may be some
rejection. If Carmen’s body rejected
the donor face completely, it would
have to be removed and surgeons
[[2R]]

precise stitches under their microscopes.
Because face transplants demand
so much concentration, there’s rarely
any chatter among the surgeons,
nurses or technicians in the operating
theater; with one exception. Moments
after Pomahac and his team positioned the donor face over Carmen’s
face and stitched together the external
carotid artery on the right side of the
face and a facial artery on the left,
there was an audible gasp from some
members of the operating team.
Several of the team muttered
“Wow!” as they watched Carmen’s

Marinda Righter holds a
photo of her mother, donor
Cheryl Denelli-Righter, at a
press conference.

blood out of it and replaced it with
cold preserving solution. It then
looked like a lifeless gray, ashen mask.
They packed it on ice and rushed it
via an ambulance to Brigham and
Women’s Hospital 39 miles away.
While Dr. Pomahac had been removing the donor face, a team of surgeons had been readying Carmen for
the transplant. Guided by 3-D diagrams of Carmen’s facial structure,
they gingerly stripped her face of
damaged skin, muscle and nerves to
make way for the new tissue.
It would take almost 15 hours for Dr.
Pomahac and his team to complete
Carmen’s face transplant. Using highpowered microscopes, surgeons delicately connected the nerves, blood
vessels and muscles of the donor face
to Carmen’s. It was exacting work and
the surgeons made hundreds of tiny,
Reader’s Digest XX/12

Marinda was told she would not recognize
her mother’s face if she met Carmen.
Still, she thought, can I handle this?

P H O T O : L I G H T C H A S E R P H O T O G R A P H Y / J K I E LY J R

would have to reconstruct Carmen’s
face. It was a major risk but as the surgeon, whose first name in Czech
means “gift given by God,” explained,
“We may not find a better match.”
At 5 o’clock the next morning Carmen was wheeled into the Brigham
and Women’s Hospital operating
room where more than 30 surgeons,
nurses, technicians and attendants
awaited her.
Five hours earlier Pomahac and a
second team of surgeons at University
of Massachusetts Medical Center had
begun carefully removing the face
from a woman who had died just a day
earlier from a stroke. They stripped
away the donor’s skin, taking care to
painstakingly dissect the tiny arteries,
veins, muscles, nerves, fat and bones
Carmen would need. Once they had
removed the face they flushed the
[[1L]]

mystery donor and her family for their
generous, life-changing gift.
Because donations are usually
made anonymously, Carmen never
expected to know whose face she had
received. But tonight in the library of
Brigham and Women’s Hospital she
would meet the daughter of that donor. What could she say to her, she
wondered. How could she ever thank
the family?
Marinda Righter, 30, who had offered her mother Cheryl DenelliRighter’s face for donation, was
equally nervous. Organ donation officials had told her she would likely

new face gradually change color from
ashen gray to bright pink, starting
from its right side to the nose, then to
the left cheek and finally up to the
forehead as the blood flowed into it.
As Pomohac would later explain, “It
is a profound moment. The face literally comes alive before our eyes.”
TEN WEEKS AFTER her surgery Carmen was ready to reveal her new face
to the world at a press conference
with Dr. Pomohac and his medical
team. But first there was someone she
had to meet. Ever since she awoke
from surgery she had frequently
“talked” to her new face, thanking her

not recognize her mother’s face if she
met Carmen. They explained it would
have changed greatly after it was attached to Carmen’s bone structure.
Still, she thought as she prepared to
meet Carmen, Can I handle this?
Even before she entered the hospital library, when she saw Carmen
through a window, Marinda recognized the face of the 56-year-old
mother she had lost to a sudden, massive stroke less than three months ago.
Overcome with emotion, she rushed
into the room and hugged Carmen.
Both women started crying.
Brushing back her tears and still
hugging Carmen, Marinda looked
[[2R]]

ically lessened her pain, yet she must
still take more than a dozen different
medicines daily, including powerful immunosupressants to stave off rejection.
Although she is still legally blind, the
sight in her left eye is good enough that
she can read with the help of a magnifier. Each month she gains more feeling
and control in her face and her speech
steadily improves. She lives close to her
sister Kess, her mother Joan and her
two children, Liza and Hannah, who
now attend college. And Carmen has a
new man in her life, music teacher Sheldon Stein, whom she met a few months
before her transplant operation. Carmen’s website is www.overcomebook.
com.

Posing for a photo at
her home in Vermont

closer at her face and noticed her
mother’s freckles and the two small
age spots she used to jokingly complain about.
“Can I touch your face?” she asked
Carmen and then lightly ran her hand
over her freckles.
“And I have this little mole right
here,” said Carmen, pointing to her
cheek.
“Oh my God,” said Marinda, “Yes. I
know that mole!”
The next day at the press conference, Marinda turned to Carmen and
said, “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. This is truly a blessing.”

come: Burned, Blinded and Blessed,
was published, she has devoted her
life to spreading her message of forgiveness and perseverance. Sitting in
her small Thetford, Vermont, apartment that looks out on lush green,
cow-dotted pastures and wearing a
T-shirt that boldly proclaims, Vulnerability is Sexy,” she explains, “I am
blessed because I’ve overcome challenges in my life and I’ve moved on. I
want to be an example to people that
horrible things may happen to you but
you can get beyond them and come to
a new place in your life.”
She pauses and after a small chuckle
adds, “You know, it’s like that dream I
had years ago: ‘Life is a choice.’ And I
chose life.”

“BLESSINGS” ARE SOMETHING Carmen Tarleton talks about frequently
these days. Ever since her book, Over[[1L]]

Editor’s Note: After more than 55 surgeries Carmen’s medical prognosis is
good. Her face transplant has dramatReader’s Digest XX/12

P H O T O : L E S LY E D A V I S / T H E N E W Y O R K T I M E S / R E D U X

Carmen and friend
Nanci Stein last
August at a bluegrass
festival campground

[[2R]]