Health & Wellness

Chimp attack survivor Charla Nash hopes to give back by helping wounded veterans

Seven years after a devastating chimpanzee attack permanently altered her life, Charla Nash is hoping to turn it into something positive that could help wounded U.S. military veterans.

In 2009, Nash, 62, lost her eyes, hands, nose and most of her face as a result of an attack by a friend's 200-pound chimpanzee in Stamford, Connecticut. Two years later, Nash was one of the first face transplant recipients in the U.S., revealing her new face on TODAY later that year.

Shelly Sindland Photography
Seven years after surviving a horrific chimpanzee attack, Charla Nash is hoping her ongoing recovery can give the military insight into how to treat veterans with similar injuries.

She is now hoping her ordeal can benefit injured and disfigured soldiers returning from war. The U.S. military paid for her face transplant in hopes of gleaning insight from her recovery and experimental treatments that could help wounded veterans.

Nash, whose father was an Air Force veteran, is currently part of a military-funded research project at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital that aims to learn from her body's reaction to the face transplant and various medications that could one day assist wounded soldiers.

"I think my first reaction was that's great, I can contribute, I can do something,'' Nash told TODAY.com about becoming a research subject. "It's not like I'm just sitting like a dead log in the water. I can really give something back."

Brandon Goodwin / Brandon Goodwin
Charla Nash, shown in her apartment in 2014, has been able to regain more of her independence with each year of her recovery.

Being part of the research turned a wish into reality for Nash. She told TODAY.com in 2014 that she hoped to go to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and meet with wounded veterans. Now her own recovery could potentially make their lives better.

Nash undergoes periodic checkups that allow doctors to see how well her brain and arteries are reacting to her face, and doctors have measured her body's reactions to a medication that helps protect her face transplant. Five years after the transplant, Nash remains focused on rebuilding herself rather than dwelling on the attack.

RELATED: Charla Nash seeks primate safety act: I don't want it to happen again

"Every day I build up a little more strength and try to get a little more aggressive with things I want to do,'' she said. "I was such an independent person (before the attack), and to have to rely on people to do every little thing for me has been a challenge. I've learned throughout this process more patience than I've had before."

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Nash lives in a second-floor apartment in an area near Brigham and Women's Hospital, where she visits once a week for physical therapy. A former barrel racer at rodeo competitions in her youth, she has worked hard to improve her physical strength.

“Charla is doing remarkably well, and I would consider the face transplant a success,'' Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, director of plastic surgery transplantation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told TODAY.com in a statement. "She has experienced the restoration of vital functions, including the ability to breathe through her nose, smell, and eat without drooling.

RELATED: 'Keep thinking of the future': Chimp attack victim fights for her day in court

"Thanks to that we were able to remove her tracheostomy, and feeding tube. She is now able to enjoy a more normal social life, and spend time with her friends and family, without the anxiety she previously experienced."

Nash also has nurses who come to assist her at her apartment every morning while also giving her an injection related to the ongoing research project.

"We hope to show that the drug will be effective to prevent transplant rejection and allow us to taper conventional anti rejection medications to reduce long-term side effects,'' Pomahac said. "She is the first patient in this trial and it is still very early in the process.”

She spends her time listening to the radio and books on tape and says she has "enough to keep me busy for the day."

"I think if I just had my eyes, I'd be able to do 10 times more because right now I'm in the dark,'' she said.

Shelly Sindland Photography
Nash is learning to use a prosthetic hand to help feed herself.

Initially, Nash was unable to feed herself without assistance, but has become more independent. She has aides who prepare her food, but she is learning to use a prosthetic hand to grip a fork. She had a successful hand transplant in 2011, but she later developed pneumonia, resulting in doctors having to remove the transplanted hands due to infection and poor circulation.

Since the Department of Defense did not cover purchase of the prosthetic hand, Nash was able to get it thanks to the kindness of others. A GoFundMe account set up by her friend, Shelly Sindland, raised $12,700 to purchase the hand. Nash received a $4 million settlement in 2012 from the estate of the chimp's owner, Sandra Herold, but much of it went to paying legal and medical bills.

"I can feed myself, but then again, the food has to be cut in front of me,'' she said. "I have numerous medical bills to pay back, so on weekends I have no assistance here at home, but there is stuff in the refrigerator where I can open the plastic container and feed myself."

Nash has no memory of the attack, which has helped with her psychological recovery.

"I'm told that it could stay hidden for years, and it could possibly hit me and cause me nightmares and such,'' she said. "In the case that it does, I can reach out for psychological help, but knock on wood, I don't have any nightmares or remembrance."

  • Slideshow Photos

    A new face for Charla

    Charla Nash was severely disabled after she was attacked by a friend's chimp. See how she looked before, and what she looks like now, after a face transplant.

  • Image: To match Reuters Life! FACE-TRANSPLANT/CHIMPANZEE

    A new face for Charla

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    Charla Nash, of Stamford, Conn., is pictured in an undated photo before being attacked and mauled by a friend's pet chimpanzee. On Feb. 16, 2009, after Nash arrived at Sandra Herold's house to help her lure her pet, Travis, back into the house, the animal attacked her, injuring her eyes, lips, nose and all of her fingers save for one solitary thumb. Now permanently blind, Nash has received a full face transplant, the third surgery of its kind performed in the United States.

    Courtesy of Nash Family / Courtesy of Nash Family
  • Travis

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    Travis, a pet belonging to Sandra Herold, weighed 200 pounds and was 10 years old when he mauled Charla Nash. Here's he's shown sitting in the corner of his playroom at Herold's Stamford, Conn., home in 2003.

    AP / AP
  • A new face for Charla

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    This gated driveway led to Sandra Herold's home where Charla Nash was attacked and mauled by Travis, a pet chimpanzee on Feb. 16, 2009. Police say Travis had gotten out of the house and so Nash, a friend of Herold's, came over to help lure him back inside. Herold speculated that Travis was being protective of her and attacked Nash because she had a different hairstyle, was driving a different car and held a stuffed toy in front of her face to get the chimp's attention.

    AP / AP
  • Image: Charles Willenger, Michael Nash

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    Charles Willinger, an attorney, puts his hand on the shoulder of Michael Nash, the brother of Charla Nash, after a court hearing April 13, 2009 in Stamford, Conn., for a lawsuit against Sandra Herold, the owner of the chimp.

    AP / AP
  • Image: Stamford police officer Frank Chiafari

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    Stamford police officer Frank Chiafari testifies in Hartford, Conn., on Feb. 25, 2010, before state lawmakers about the need to reform workers compensation laws. Chiafari says he was traumatized after shooting a rampaging chimpanzee to death after it mauled and blinded its owner's friend about a year ago.

    AP / AP
  • Editor's Note:

    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    or use the buttons to navigate away.

    Image: To match Reuters Life! FACE-TRANSPLANT/CHIMPANZEE

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    Charla Nash prior to the May 2011 face transplant.

    Brigham and Women's Hospital via Reuters / Brigham and Women's Hospital via Reuters
  • Image: US face transplant

    A new face for Charla

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    During a 20-hour surgery in May 2011, Charla Nash received a full face transplant at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. At the same time, she also underwent a double hand transplant, which ultimately failed to thrive and had to be removed. Shown, left to right, are Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, director of the plastic surgery transplantation program at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Dr. Danial Alam, of the Head and Neck Institute at Cleveland Clinic, and Dr. Julian Pribaz, the associate chief of plastic surgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

    EPA / EPA
  • Editor's Note:

    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    BRIGHAM AND WOMEN'S HOSPITAL, NASH FAMILY MEMBERS VIST CHARLA NASH TRIPLE  TRANSPLANT RECIPIENT FOR FIRST TIME IN ICU

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    Less than 24-hours after Charla Nash's face transplant, surgeon Dr. Bohdan Pomahac allowed her brother, Steve Nash, and daughter, Brianna, to visit her in the intensive care unit of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

    Lightchaser Photography via Brigham and Women's Hospital / Lightchaser Photography via Brigham and Women's Hospital
  • BRIGHAM AND WOMEN'S HOSPITAL, BRIANNA NASH VISITS MOTHER CHARLA NASH FACE TRANSPLANT RECIPIENT IN ROOM

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    Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, director of the plastic surgery transplantation program at Brigham and Women's Hospital, speaks with Charla Nash on July 5, 2011.

    Lightchaser Photography via Brigham and Women's Hospital / Lightchaser Photography via Brigham and Women's Hospital
  • BRIGHAM AND WOMEN'S HOSPITAL, BRIANNA NASH VISITS MOTHER CHARLA NASH FACE TRANSPLANT RECIPIENT IN ROOM

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    Charla Nash's daughter, Briana, said her mother "looks fantastic," after her face transplant. “You’d never believe something like that could be done. She looks just like everyone else," she told TODAY's Ann Curry in an exclusive interview.

    Lightchaser Photography via Brigham and Women's Hospital / Lightchaser Photography via Brigham and Women's Hospital
  • Today

    A new face for Charla

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    Meredith Vieira speaks to Charla Nash and her daughter, Briana, about her recovery and her new hopes following her May, 2011 face transplant.

    NBC / NBC
  • Today

    A new face for Charla

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    Charla Nash in November, 2011: Nearly three years after the horrific chimp attack that almost killed her, and six months after a 20-hour face transplant operation.

    NBC / NBC
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    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    A new face for Charla

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    L-R: Charla Nash before the 2009 chimp attack; after the attack; shortly after her May, 2011 face transplant; and in November, 2011. The donor face has begun to mold to Charla's underlying bone structure, and in another year doctors say it should look totally natural.

    Courtesy of Nash Family, Reuters / Courtesy of Nash Family, Reuters
  • Image: Stephen Nash, Charla Nash

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    Charla Nash arrives with her brother Stephen, left, for a hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn., on Aug. 10, 2012. Nash who was mauled in a 2009 chimpanzee attack is attending a hearing to determine whether she may sue the state for $150 million in claimed damages.

    AP / AP
  • Image: Charla Nash, Bill Monaco

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    Charla Nash, right, talks with attorney Bill Monaco before a hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn., Friday, Aug. 10, 2012.

    AP / AP
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    Charla Nash poses for a portrait at her home on March 13, 2014.

    TODAY / TODAY
  • Image: Charla Nash

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    Charla Nash, a former professional barrel racer, wears her cowgirl hat. Nash, along with the Humane Society, is urging Congress to support the Captive Primates Safety Act.

    Courtesy Shelly Sindland / Courtesy Shelly Sindland

Her positive approach to her recovery is also something that could serve as an inspiration to soldiers dealing with similar catastrophic injuries.

"Charla is a courageous and strong person who has inspired our team with her bravery and dedication to helping future patients,'' Pomahac said.

"I would say that if anyone gets in this situation, don't think about the past and what has happened,'' she said. "Think about what you're going to be, going forward, and what you want to do next. Never give up."

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