Falling In Love Again: Face-Transplant Donor's Daughter Meets Recipient
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. Now, a story about renewed hope brought about through a face transplant. Six years ago, Carmen Blandin Tarleton was attacked by her estranged husband who beat her with a baseball bat and poured industrial-strength lye on her face. She was burned over 80 percent of her body and disfigured beyond recognition. Well, since then, Tarleton has undergone more than 50 surgeries, and in February, she received a face transplant.
This week, for the first time, she met the daughter of the face donor, and the two women join me now to talk about that moment. Carmen Blandin Tarleton is in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Marinda Snow Righter is in Boston. Welcome to you both.
CARMEN BLANDIN TARLETON: Thanks, Melissa. Thanks for having me.
MARINDA SNOW RIGHTER: It's wonderful to be here. Thank you for having us, Melissa.
BLOCK: Carmen, why don't we start with you? I know your immune system was badly compromised from all of those surgeries, but you decided you wanted the face transplant, even though you knew there was a really good chance that your body would reject it. Why did you decide to go ahead?
TARLETON: I just felt very strongly that if I ended up finding a close enough match that it would all work out, and I just sort of held on to that.
BLOCK: And when you heard that there was a donor, what did you think?
TARLETON: That night, I was pretty scared. That was the only time I really felt scared. After I decided that I would do it, I just thought that it's all going to work out, and I'm just going to go with the flow and just think of it in the most positive way I could.
BLOCK: Well, Marinda, it's your mother who was the donor: Cheryl Denelli Righter. She died of a sudden stroke, as I understand it. She was really young, 56 years old.
RIGHTER: I know, taken too soon.
BLOCK: I'm so sorry.
RIGHTER: Thank you.
BLOCK: And you had to sign off on the face transplant. I know she was an organ donor, but for a face transplant you had to give the OK.
RIGHTER: I signed off on it when I was at the hospital, and after leaving, I got a phone call from one of my New England donor angels, Dan, and he told me that there is a recipient for my mother's facial tissue. And, you know, at that time, it was actually a no-brainer. I was just kind of blown away by the whole thing. It sounded like something out of a science-fiction novel. The one question that I had for Dan was: Dan, is this person going to look like my mother?
RIGHTER: And he said: Well, no, because the other - the person has a different facial structure, and that will mold to their face over time. And so that was, you know, that was the right thing to say.
BLOCK: Well, I'm very curious to hear about the meeting that the two of you had for the first time this week. Carmen, when you first got to meet Marinda, what did you tell her?
TARLETON: Well, when she walked into the room, I stood up from my chair, and she came towards me, and she said: Can I hug you? And I said yes. And we just embraced and cried. And it was probably one of the best feelings I've had in my life. It was totally unexpected that I would get a chance to meet her now. She's just such a beautiful person and such a giving person and selfless, as I know her mother was as well.
BLOCK: And, Marinda, what was it like for you to see Carmen having received, you know, the face transplant donated from your mother?
RIGHTER: It was truly a cathartic experience. I saw her through the window at the library at Brigham and Women's, and just seeing her profile, I mean, it hit me. I didn't go in with any expectations. I'm like, I know she has my mother's face, and I'm really excited to meet her. And walking in there, I mean, I feel like everything was in slow motion. And I did. I asked her if I could hug her, and, oh, my gosh, I just didn't want to let go.
RIGHTER: And I stared at her, and I think my next question was: Can I touch your face?
TARLETON: Oh, yeah.
RIGHTER: And instant - just an incredible instant connection. Man, I fell in love with Carmen there, and I've never felt closer to my mom in that moment too, so wonderful.
BLOCK: Oh, Marinda, as you look at Carmen, do you feel in some level like you are looking at your mother or touching your mother when you did touch her face?
RIGHTER: I do. It's kind of a funny story, but my mom, she was kind of obsessed with age and getting older. And she would point out her little age spots, and she'll say, oh, I need to cover up this spot. I'm like, Mom, I never noticed those spots until you mentioned it. And it's funny it was the first thing I noticed on Carmen, and it made me joyous. And Carmen pointed out her little - she had like a little mole on her face, and I said: Yes, I know that. I know that mole. Oh, my goodness, I know that freckle.
And even the eyebrows and the nose, you know - though Dan told me she was going to not look like my mother, she did, and that brought me a lot of comfort. I miss my mother, but, man, what a gift. And she would have chosen Carmen, and I think she did.
BLOCK: Carmen, what's it like for you to look in the mirror - I know you are - you're legally blind from the attack, but you do some sight left. What is it like as you look and see your new face?
TARLETON: Well, it just makes me feel good. It makes feel good that it happened. It makes me feel good that I don't have all the pain that I had in my neck. It just makes me feel good to have some eyelids, so my eyes aren't constantly drying out. And, you know, all - I had so many issues just because of such the lack of function. So it just makes me happy to look in the mirror, and it makes me happy to know that Cheryl was a donor and that Marinda certainly was strong enough to allow it to happen.
BLOCK: Well, Carmen and Marinda, where do you think you go from here? You've met now for the first time. You've seen each other. You've spoken. Does that continue? What do you think?
RIGHTER: We better.
TARLETON: I made Marinda a promise the first night I met her. I promised to be in her life as much as she wanted me to be. It's a privilege to be. It's whatever she wants it to be, and that's the least I could do for Cheryl and Marinda. I'm just here.
RIGHTER: The feelings are mutual. I feel a very strong connection to Carmen, and she said to me, she said, well, you can be my oldest daughter, at our first meeting, even. And I said, well, you know, Carmen, I'm parentless at 30 years old and I love you, so yes. Let's do this. Let's strengthen this relationship. I am just so lucky that she wanted to know who I was, and here we go.
BLOCK: Well, Marinda and Carmen, it's been a real pleasure to talk to you. Thanks to you both.
RIGHTER: Thank you so much, Melissa. I appreciate you.
TARLETON: Thank you. Thank you, Melissa. I'll talk to you soon, Marinda.
RIGHTER: Goodbye, Carmen. I'll talk to you very soon.
TARLETON: Yes. I'll Facebook you and stuff, OK?
RIGHTER: I love it. Much love to you.
TARLETON: Yes. OK. You too. Talk soon.
BLOCK: In February, Carmen Blandin Tarleton received a rare face transplant at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. And this week, Carmen met the donor's daughter, Marinda Snow Righter.
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