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Chimp attack victim Charla Nash: The face of courage, gratitude

August 11, 2011 |  9:28 am

Chimp_attack_victim_Charla_Nash
Chimp attack victim. That's the shorthand way the media refers to Charla Nash, the Connecticut woman who was savagely attacked by a friend's chimpanzee more than two years ago.There's no nice way to describe the frenzied 2009 attack: The animal ripped off Nash's face and hands, blinding her in the process. Images of Nash and her new face were released Wednesday by Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, where Nash has been recovering.

Take a good long look. It's the face of almost unimaginable courage, grace and dignity. And if you are having a bad day, or a bad week, or a bad month, year or decade, take a second look. It's also the face of gratitude.

Nash, 57, released a statement saying she feels "blessed" for the life that she has today. You can read the full statement below, but it says in part: "I thank everyone who has helped me for these last 2-1/2 years....These transplants could not have been possible without the generosity of a family unknown to me. They gave me a face and hands. I will now be able to do things I once took for granted. I will be able to smell. I will be able to eat normally. I will no longer be disfigured. I will have lips and will speak clearly once again. I will be able to kiss and hug loved ones. I am tremendously grateful to the donor and her family."

Nash helped make history as the recipient of a face-and-double-hands transplant. Unfortunately, the hands transplant was unsuccessful, and they had to be removed. The woman's brother, Stephan Nash, spoke with NBC's "Today" show co-anchor Ann Curry, and said he is pleased with Charla's progress on the inside as well as the outside. "Her optimism is back again, so we're quite ecstatic."

Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, who heads up the 30-member surgical team at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital that is helping Charla Nash, predicted in Wednesday's press conference that she will eventually be able to walk in public without drawing unwanted attention. She did not attend her daughter Briana's recent high school graduation for fear of creating a commotion that would overshadow the event. "We know it broke her heart," Pomahac said, appearing to struggle himself to hold back his emotions. "I think her new face will allow Charla to be present when Briana graduates from college in a few short years. It will be a great day for Charla, and for all of us."

Another goal: taking a bite out of a juicy burger. "She will eventually be able to eat a hamburger, something she said was very important to her, having only had pureed food since her injury, and I think we can all relate to that," Pomahac said.

The attack occurred in 2009 when the owner of the 200-pound pet chimpanzee named Travis asked Charla Nash, a friend, to help lure it back into the house after it escaped. The animal ripped off Nash's hands, nose, lips and eyelids. The animal was shot and killed by police.

No one knows why the animal attacked. Owner Sandra Herold had said Nash might be to blame -- her new hairstyle might have confused the animal.  Herold has since died. Nash's family has filed a $50-million lawsuit against her estate.

The damage to Nash was extreme. Hers was only the third full face transplant performed in the United States, experts said. In addition to replacing the skin on her face, doctors had to replace the muscle beneath, as well as blood vessels, nerves, her hard palate and her teeth.

Another double-hand transplant is on the horizon, doctors said. "For a blind patient, I think the hands do provide the contact to the outside world, and ultimately, the road to independence ... and that's why I think she will want to have it done in the future," he said.

However, recovering her eyesight is a long shot at this point, doctors say. Transplanting eyes is "science fiction at this time."

He couldn't help adding what we all already know, but deserves repeating: "I'm not sure you're aware of the person Charla is," Pomahac said. "To us, she's not a woman who was mauled by a chimpanzee. To us, Charla is a courageous, strong person who inspired the team to do everything possible."

The full statement released by Charla Nash:

Since February 16, 2009, I have been blessed to be in the care of many incredible doctors, nurses, and caregivers. These professionals first saved my life, then healed my wounds and strengthened me to face an uncertain future. They helped me adapt to a near impossible situation where I was unable to see, smell, and move with confidence without the use of hands. Finally, I was given the chance to restore most of what I lost by coming to Brigham and Women's Hospital. Here I received a new face and two hands that will allow me to be independent once again and able to be part of society. Losing the new hands is just a bump in the road of my recovery. I believe that one day I'll have two hands to help me live as a blind person with confidence.

I thank everyone who has helped me for these last two and a half years.

The first responders who arrived at the scene of the attack in Stamford were the first to see how injured I was, and the first to help me stay alive. Dr. Kevin Miller and his staff at Stamford Hospital performed life-saving surgery that first night. All the members of the medical team performed brilliantly. I was able to personally thank many members of that team, but I wish to once again express my gratitude. I was moved to the Cleveland Clinic a few days after surgery. In Cleveland, Dr. Daniel Alam and a team of surgeons, nurses, and medical aides cared for me. During the 16 months I was in Cleveland, I was brought back to life. These wonderful people treated my injuries and helped me with my daily needs. I want to thank the Cleveland Clinic again for everything they did for me.

My journey to recovery continued at Brigham and Women's Hospital. I arrived in June, 2010. Here the medical team, led by Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, prepared me for a face transplant and a double hand transplant. My surgery was successfully completed a few months ago. Unfortunately, the hands did not thrive and had to be removed because of complications developing from my having pneumonia. I thank this wonderful staff for their efforts and I am grateful for all the care I have received here.

These transplants could not have been possible without the generosity of a family unknown to me. They gave me a face and hands. I will now be able to do things I once took for granted. I will be able to smell. I will be able to eat normally. I will no longer be disfigured. I will have lips and will speak clearly once again. I will be able to kiss and hug loved ones. I am tremendously grateful to the donor and her family.

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 --Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo: Charla Nash after a May 2011 full face transplant at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Credit: Lightchaser Photography.

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