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Health & Wellness

Chimp attack victim Charla Nash: 'Hopefully by Christmas I could get hands'

AP / Today
Charla Nash sits before a hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn., Friday, 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 Photo/Jessica Hill)

Charla Nash, the victim of a horrific attack by a 200-pound chimpanzee, appeared Friday at a Connecticut legal hearing, where officials are deciding whether she can sue the state for $150 million.

The attack occured when Nash had gone to visit her friend, Sandra Herold, back in 2009. She had just gotten out of her car when Herold’s chimp spotted her, went berserk and attacked. A terrified Herold dialed 911 and Charla was rushed to the hospital where doctors managed to save her life, but not her face or her hands.

Speaking clearly and looking remarkably recovered from the disfiguring attack and her 2011 face transplant, Nash spoke exclusively to NBC News about her recovery and her hopes for the future.

"I need to keep building up my stamina," Nash said. "Hopefully by Christmas I could get hands."

Back in May 2011 doctors gave Charla her new face, from an anonymous donor, in a grueling 20-hour surgery. The 30-member surgical team, under the leadership of Dr. Bohdan Pomahac at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, performed a groundbreaking full face and double hand transplant. She later lost the hands due to complications, but her new face thrived.

  • 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

    A new face for Charla

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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

    A new face for Charla

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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

    A new face for Charla

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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

    A new face for Charla

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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
  • A new face for Charla

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

    TODAY / TODAY
  • Image: Charla Nash

    A new face for Charla

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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

As time went on and the swelling went down, Charla's new face began to mold to her underlying bone structure, giving her an appearance reminiscent of the way she looked before the horrifying attack in 2009.

Looking at Nash on Friday, it was hard to imagine that just three years ago she had no nose, lips, or ears. Though the right side of her mouth droops a bit because of nerve damage, Nash’s face looks otherwise quite normal.

“Overall, it’s really superb – a remarkable result,” said Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, a professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Chief of Plastic Surgery at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center.

Rodriguez, who led the team that transplanted a face in March of this year, suspects that Nash will continue to improve with time as nerves continue to rewire and the facial muscles get more use. Nash told NBC that she's been exercising to build up her muscles, and demonstrated with pride how she can now close her lips fully.

Experts say it takes months for the nerves emanating from transplanted faces to connect with a patient’s brain.

In Nash’s case, “she is more than a year past her surgery and the nerves have started to grow back so she can make facial expressions and do the kinds of things a normal face does,” said Dr. Daniel Alam, section head of facial plastic and reconstructive surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. Alam was Nash’s initial reconstructive surgeon and took part in her transplant surgery.

“The holy grail for us is to learn to make the nerves work better,” Alam said. “Right now, we can make them work and recover function, but there tends to be some asymmetry, with the nerves on one side working better than the other.”

The magical part, Alam said, is not that the transplant survives and molds to the patient’s face, but that it actually hooks up with the region of the brain that tells it how and when to move.

“Inside your brain there’s a part near the ear, called the facial motor, that tells the face what it needs to do,” Alam explained. “Its branches tell the eyes when to close, the mouth when to smile. Each tiny movement of the face is like a note in a piece of music. If you think of the face as an instrument, the brain is sending all the notes to that instrument and making it play.”

The process doesn’t end when doctors put in their last stitch, though. After surgeons connect up what they can, the brain does its own bit of rewiring.

“It’s fascinating,” Alam said. “Six months to a year after the transplant, the recipient’s nerves grow into the face. So you get a hybrid. You’ve got the donor face, but your own nerves grow into the muscles and tell them what to do.”

Nash said she was tired after the hearing because she's not used to such lengthy public outings, but overall said, "I'm doing OK."

Nash, who has amassed millions of dollars in medical and other bills, said she's holding out hope she will be granted permission to sue the state's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which she holds responsible for not seizing the animal despite a state biologist's warning it was dangerous, according to the Associated Press.

Assistant Attorney General Maite Barainca told Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. that Nash deserves sympathy for her plight and admiration for the courage she has shown in dealing with her situation, but argued that the state should not be held liable for actions of the privately owned animal, the AP reported.

A decision on the state's motion to dimiss is expected to be issued within 30 days. If the commissioner rules against Nash, she can ask state legislators to overrule the decision. If the state's motion to dismiss is denied, a trial-like hearing will be held. Then the commissioner would then have to decide whether to allow Nash to sue the DEEP in superior court, according to the Associated Press. 

Charla Nash's family has established a fund for her care at nashtrust.com.

For more about Charla: NBC News takes an in-depth and intimate look at the Charla Nash story in the eBook The Woman Who Lost Her Face. For more information go to NBCpublishing.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

More on Charla Nash:

Chimp attack victim speaks about new face, new hopes

Chimp attack victim reveals new face

State fights chimp victim's effort to sue

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