Facial Transplant Patient Fights to Keep Her New Face

The Vermont woman received a facial transplant in February.

Transplant surgery

Tarleton’s initial procedure. Photo by lightchaser photography, courtesy of Brigham and Women’s

When we reported on Carmen Blandin Tarleton‘s amazing facial transplant surgery in February, the mood was celebratory. Tarleton, who underwent the surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital after being attacked by her estranged husband in 2007, was only the fifth patient in the hospital’s history to have the procedure, and it looked like the operation would allow Tarleton to finally return to normal.

But by March, the Boston Globe reports, the mood had changed. Tarleton’s body was rejecting her new face, and no treatments were helping; her doctor, Bohdan Pomahac, was running out of options. It looked like Tarleton’s donor face might have to be removed—but Tarleton disagreed. She demanded they keep trying, and her resilience allowed her to keep her new face. The Globe article says:

There was one medicine [alemtuzumab, a type of anitbody used to treat leukemia] the doctors had not tried, since it had a 10 to 20 percent chance of killing her, since her immune system had been weakened by other drugs she was taking. Pomahac and his colleagues were uncomfortable with such extraordinarily high odds, in part because the face transplant was not a life-saving procedure.

“I told him I would want that medicine regardless of my risk of death,’’ Tarleton said.

Crazy as it was, the treatment worked, and Tarleton was able to reveal her new face at a press conference at Brigham and Women’s hospital today. While Tarleton will have to stay on anti-rejection drugs for the rest of her life and will likely need follow-up procedures, she is now no longer at risk for losing her face, the report says, and her symptoms have receded. “Recovery takes time and patience,” she said at the press conference after thanking her doctors, family, and donor. “I have learned that we have so much more control over the lives that we know. I am a living example that we have the power and the ability to overcome anything that happens to us.”

And while this news is obviously exciting for Tarleton, it’s also a major breakthrough for the Boston medical community, as her unconventional treatment sets a precedent for proceeding with transplant surgeries in patients with a risk for rejection. “Carmen is the most immunologically complex patient that has ever received” a transplant of this kind, Pomahac said at the press conference today. “We have pioneered a new frontier in what is immunologically possible.”