June 10, 2007. Carmen Tarleton was sleeping peacefully in her home when she was violently awakened by her ex-husband-- fuming with anger as he suspected to come upon another man. His instincts were wrong, but he didn’t stop from acting on his rage. In the presence of Carmen and her two daughters, he beat his ex-wife exhaustively with a baseball bat and covered her in industrial lye-- a compound that easily eats away at skin, disintegrates fat, and breaks down bone. Her story paints an awfully vulgar image of the cases of domestic assault that plague the United States in the cases of all gender identities and roles.
At The Congress of Future Medical Leaders in Lowell, Massachusetts, I had the chance to listen to her story firsthand from operation room to life after. As speakers for the three-day event were announced, an air of curiosity filled the room as “Next up: Carmen Tarleton” echoed throughout the auditorium. Silence extended as Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, dressed neatly in a white lab coat, centered himself on the stage. All young eyes were set on his position as he began to speak. He had performed the first full-face transplant in America on Carmen Tarleton.
He carefully described the importance of collaboration in a laboratory environment-- stating that the job was not all his, and was long in its planning and reassessment-- considering it would become one of the first and not the last of its kind. However, it was simple to gather his profound individual intellect and vision-- it characterized his speech as he captivated an entire audience with only the words of his career experience, centered on the stage for the entirety of the period he spoke. As he explained the tribulations to finding the proper parts and completing the timely procedures, he reserved the details of the backstory to the next speaker: Carmen herself.
As she walked carefully onto the stage, the audience fell further into a collective state of hypnotized interest. We were staring at the miracle of life-- revived by modern science. As Dr. Pomahac passed off the stage, his admiration and likeness to Carmen was easily revealed in his kind nature as he voiced appreciation for his patient and friend. As she began to speak, she thanked his team endlessly for giving her another shot at living when it was ripped from her hands. She thanked them for ceasing the pain caused by her ex-husband’s rage.
It was on Valentine’s Day, 2013, when Carmen received the gift she had long wanted. Eyelids-- implanted to deliver a humongous relief of tumultuous pain. Not romantic accommodations or sweet flowers, but eyelids (Allen & Brown, 2017). She’d long wished for the opportunity to comfortably close her eyes-- something we often do as mindlessly as a blink. It marked the beginning of fragmented procedures that would accumulate into the transplantation of an entire face.
Years later, past the Congress and Carmen’s speech, the expected happened. Blood vessels in portions of her face began to close, killing the tissue in her face. It was as Dr. Pomahac suspected, offering that “it's really not realistic to hope faces are going to last (the patient’s) lifetime." It will therefore be necessary, he holds, to complete a restransplant, where the patient is assessed and a new plan is created (Miller, 2019). As details develop, Carmen looks optimistically to a retransplant, looking to get whichever procedures she needs to keep defying the past-- living for herself.
In the present, a 22 year old patient has received a rare transplant that mirrors the work of Dr. Pomahac and the journey of Carmen Tarleton. After falling asleep on a highway, Joe DiMeo was covered in third degree burns when his vehicle flipped and exploded. As his doctor, NYU surgeon Eduardo Rodriguez, recollected, his hands had melted like “mittens” (O’Dowd & McMahon, 2021). His eyes and lips had melted together, and left in a coma, DiMeo became a case that would have to be handled carefully and mindfully. His hands were of greatest concern to the surgical team.
After two international unsuccessful attempts to restore the face and hands, Dr. Rodriguez was left weary, yet determined to succeed in a restoration effort. Considering the time sensitivity of the effort, he quickly assembled a team of experts to assist his effort, and found a proper donor to provide both the face and hands. The procedure was successful.
In fact, the procedure had such success that DiMeo has found himself able to exercise, lifting weights and regaining control over his nervous functions. Dr. Rodriguez attributes a portion of the success to DiMeo’s mindset. Confident, funny, and healthy, DiMeo will continue to regain function as he proceeds to live-- in spite of his past.
As Tarleton and DiMeo look to the future, it will not be simple to live. But they keep fighting-- setting an example for those pushed to their death. After I had the opportunity to hear one of the two speak, I have an endless respect for Ms. Tarleton, appreciative of her willingness to share and her eagerness to keep defying.
Allen, B., & Brown, D. (2017, August 9). Burned, blinded, and blessed with Carmen Tarleton.